Despite being one of 28 California natives on this season’s Utah football roster, safety Sione Vaki was not familiar with the Utes on account of their frequent forays to his home state as a result of their membership in the Pac-12.
Technically, he wasn’t really familiar with the University of Utah for any reason at all. But at least it was not alone in that regard.
“Man, this is this is actually pretty funny, because I didn’t know anything about college football when I was in high school,” Vaki told The Salt Lake Tribune. “All I knew was I would love to play in college, but I never knew what college I wanted to play for because I didn’t know any college teams.”
He said there were two reasons he ultimately chose to come to Utah: First, because assistant coach Lewis Powell made a great impression on an initial recruiting trip, and that other Utes coaches kept the positive vibes going on subsequent interactions; and second, “I’m a religious kid, I’m an LDS kid, so, [this state] being the base for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that was a big one for me as well.”
Vaki was, of course, quite the aberration in being a would-be college football player with a near-zero cognizance of the college football landscape.
Utah gaining admittance to the Pac-12 Conference a dozen years ago was momentous not merely for the step up in prestige and competition, but for the associated name recognition — being a Power-5 program would help open doors to a level of recruit perhaps previously considered unattainable.
And specifically, being in a conference with Los Angeles-based USC and UCLA would enable Utah coaches to gain a stronger foothold into the talent-rich hotbed that is Southern California high school football.
Now, though …
Well, things are about to be different.
USC and UCLA announced last summer they were bolting the Pac-12 for the television riches of the Big Ten. Then, with Colorado announcing its impending defection from the league this year, and Oregon and Washington following suit, Utah found itself in an untenable situation and departed as well, applying for and pretty instantly gaining membership in the Big 12, beginning in 2024.
It’s a good landing spot, but it’s not without some drawbacks. Chief among them? There will be no more conference games played in California. Saturday’s matchup at Rice-Eccles Stadium against the Bruins, and their Oct. 21 visit to face the Trojans will mark the final time (for the foreseeable future, at least, until superconferences become a reality) that the Utes take on those programs as league rivals.
And that reality has had an unavoidable trickle-down effect on how the Utes will go about recruiting.
“[California has] been really good to us, first of all — Southern Cal in particular has been a hugely productive area for us. Us moving into the other conference as well changes that dynamic quite a bit,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham. “We will still recruit the Southern Cal area, but not as much manpower down there as we’ve had.”
The Big 12 obviously will present some different geographic areas of focus for the Utes.
Even with Texas and Oklahoma departing for the SEC next year, the Big 12 will still encompass 16 programs across 10 states. Some of those will require some extra attention.
The majority of Utah’s recruits are obviously homegrown, with 40 players on the 2023 roster hailing from the Beehive State. After that, the Utes have devoted many resources to the traditional high school football strongholds, with those aforementioned 28 players from California, plus 15 from Texas, and seven from Florida.
However, the Utes have little to no representation from several of the states that will constitute the new Big 12. This season’s Utah roster features zero players from Colorado, Ohio, or West Virginia, just one apiece from Iowa and Kansas, and only two from Oklahoma.
Number of 2023 Utah football players from states featuring 2024 Big 12 programs
Arizona (Arizona, Arizona State) — 5
Colorado (Colorado) — 0
Florida (UCF) — 7
Iowa (Iowa State) — 1
Kansas (Kansas, Kansas State) — 1
Ohio (Cincinnati) — 0
Oklahoma (Oklahoma State) — 2
Texas (Baylor, Houston, TCU, Texas Tech) — 15
Utah (BYU, Utah) — 40
West Virginia (West Virginia) — 0
“It’s just one of the things [where] you do have to reallocate some resources other places. Big 12 country — we’ve got to get in there, we’ve got to go see some new states that we haven’t been in,” said defensive tackles coach Luther Elliss. “[There’s] different talent there and we’ve already found some there, and it’s been good. And we’re excited about the opportunity.”
Both Whittingham and Elliss noted it would be foolish to abandon California altogether.
You don’t just vacate one of the top talent-producing locales in the nation on account of not playing there annually anymore.
“California has the best ball,” Vaki boasted, “so I don’t think we can shy too much [away] from California!”
Naturally, his coaches agree — with the latter part, at least.
“I mean, California is one of the top talents as far as states, they have top talent every year, so you can’t just completely leave California,” said Elliss. “… You’ve just got to move a little bit, but California is so fertile for us, right? California, Texas, Florida, you’ll never leave those states just because there’s so much talent there.”
Still, there has to be a shift.
Even with the Longhorns’ imminent departure, the state of Texas will still feature four Big 12 programs in Baylor, Houston, TCU, and Texas Tech.
“Oh, I love it, I love it,” running back and Dallas native Ja’Quinden Jackson said of Utah adopting a more Texas-centric focus with Big 12 membership. “Finally come down south and see what [the talk is] about. I’m loving that.”
Meanwhile, the Utes’ efforts in Florida might now get a bump also with Central Florida set to become a league opponent.
The result may well be seeing a flip in the figures to some degree, with Texas and Florida commits increasing while the number of California kids goes down.
“We won’t dedicate as many coaches to that area [Southern California] as we have in the past. It’s still going to be part of our footprint, but more Texas, more heading east,” said Whittingham. “And we’ve already started that, because the next class we signed is for the next conference. And so we’ve already started to make those changes and started to put the emphasis elsewhere.”
The process may have begun, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy or simple transition.
After all, joining the Pac-12 all those years ago may have given Utah some additional credibility, but the coaches still had to put boots on the ground in new places and work to establish relationships in places where they simply weren’t as well-known.
That will be the challenge once again.
“For the most part, they know a little bit about us but not a lot, right? So brand awareness is not quite there,” said Elliss. “Now, [if] do what we’re hopefully gonna do this year, do those type of things, it’s just one of those things that we can help ourselves by continuing to play well, do well, be a top team, and have those people recognize who we are.
“The news and the announcement [of the Big 12 move], that kind of stuff at least put us on the radar, on the map, for a lot of those kids, but again, a lot of them still aren’t sure who Utah really is,” he added. “But now, hopefully, they’ll start following us.”
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