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Deseret News file
Kyle Whittingham, Kalani Sitake, Matt Wells
SALT LAKE CITY — At Utah, they’re hoping to add the state’s top prospect. At BYU, the target is an elite California quarterback who may or may not still be interested. At Utah State, adding skill players to go with recently signed offensive linemen is imperative.
Already some of each school’s concerns have been addressed. Others never will be. But you won’t hear about that on Wednesday.
Everybody’s a winner on National Letter of Intent day.
That won’t be any different this year, except it will be smaller. The NCAA recently OK’d the signing of recruits in December, if they prefer, and many took advantage. Utah signed four-star quarterback Jack Tuttle, while BYU and USU added offensive line depth.
And so forth.
What comes on Wednesday will mostly be finishing touches. The state’s top recruit, Penei Sewell, still hadn’t officially committed as of press time. But the prevailing story around the Beehive State is that, in large part, Utah’s Big Three schools will be getting three-star players.
After which the respective staffs will try to coach ’em up.
If you’re a university that’s not located near a beach, a Waffle House, an oil derrick or a closed factory, you’ll mostly attract what’s left after the five-stars are taken. This isn’t all that discouraging to Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, BYU’s Kalani Sitake or Utah State’s Matt Wells. They know their challenges. Whittingham has the most recruiting success, in part due to conference affiliation. His problem is that everybody in his conference is fighting for the same players or better. Whittingham gets more four-star recruits than BYU or USU, but not more than Oregon, USC or UCLA.
It’s a reality he lives with.
Another reality is the success Utah has had attracting the kind of players it wants. Ute cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah says having players in the Super Bowl for the last six seasons is a great recruiting tool.
“Teams know that. They come up with ways to downplay your success. But numbers don’t lie,” Shah said last week. “All you do is put kids in the league (NFL). Five-star, four-star, some don’t have stars. It’s a testament to the coach’s creed. The thing with Whit is you develop and coach them and get them ready to play at a very high level, because you want to win. And you do it over and over again.”
Speaking of over and over, that’s how it goes on recruiting day. Schools start signing players in the morning and by midafternoon it’s done. Coaches at each school invariably say they had some needs and they addressed them.
Meanwhile, every other coach in the country says the same.
That’s why NLI day is one of the most overcooked events in sports. But Shah is a rarity, in that he is candid in his assessments. Asked if the Utes now have talent in the secondary to match Pac-12 competition, he said, “I can say without doubt the first level — hands down — are all Pac-12 level guys. It’s just depth. We still need second- and third-string guys to be Pac-12 guys.”
They need four-star reserves backing up NFL-bound starters.
All the local colleges do a respectable recruiting job, considering northern Utah doesn’t have 70-degree days in February, or killer nightlife. Film stars don’t normally dine or go clubbing here. The Beehive State has more diversity than is expected but less than is believed.
At the same time, the coaches have adapted and had success on the field. Among the Big Three, there have been 23 bowl games in the last 10 years. The state’s three FBS teams accounted for 53 NFL players this year, compared to 24 from the state of Colorado and 25 from Arizona. Yet both those states have twice the population of Utah.
As Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said, “We punch above our weight.”
When it comes to recruiting, they don’t have much choice.