It can't be easy being Kyle Whittingham. Sure, it doesn't suck to be a coach at an FBS school making over two million dollars a season. But it's not easy when you're a coach at Utah as opposed to most of the other schools in the Pac-12.
Whittingham has done a very good job during his time at the school as a defensive coordinator and now as a head coach, but he's dealing with a lesser hand than most of the other coaches in the conference. He's at a school with not a lot of high end talent available to recruit within the state and even when there is big time talent available, it's tough for the Utes to keep those players at home. They weren't even a finalist for Salt Lake City native Haloti Ngata when he was a highly ranked recruit (he signed with Oregon) and this recruiting cycle things aren't much different. He was listed at 6'5" 310 pounds and was a 5 star recruit.
There are three 4 star players from Utah for the 2015 recruiting class. Offensive tackle Andre James has already committed to UCLA, they don't appear to be in the running for linebacker Porter Gustin, and have to battle a bunch of big dogs to try and land athlete Osa Masina. If they are having trouble landing the top players in the state, then it's pretty obvious they are going to have trouble being in the mix for 4 and 5 star players who hail from out of state. Try as they might, they are rarely ever going to beat a team like USC of UCLA for a recruit from California.
The only thing the Utah coaches can do is dig deep to find players who are not as highly touted, but have the potential to develop into 4 and 5 star talent down the road in college. They gained verbal commitments from four players in the last few days, all of whom are not highly ranked and none of those players have even one offer from a Power 5 conference school.
I don't think any Utah fan could sugarcoat that and pretend they are excited about that fact, but when I had the chance to watch film on all four of the recent commitments, I think they have reason to be a bit more optimistic about these players. They all have their flaws and will take time to develop, but each one of them flashed skills that suggest that they can grow into much more than their rankings or offer lists suggest.
Here are my thoughts on them:
Wide Receiver - Caleb Repp
The first thing that stands out about Repp is size. At 6'5" he is a big target and he uses that size well on jump ball plays. What makes that size so valuable is the way he competes. He fights through contact to beat press coverage and create separation on his routes and tries to set up defensive backs each rep. He fights to go up for the football when the ball is in the air. He is also battling every play to gain yards after the catch.
He is not a burner and although he flashes as a natural hands catcher, he lets the football get to his body a little too often. He looks faster as a senior than he did as a junior and I believe he can get open at the next level. There is nothing more important than that and that's why I think he is a nice addition to the Utes recruiting class.
Linebacker - Tavon Cox
At 6'3" 205, Cox is an undersized player but has great length. He needs to improve his reads and his recognition skills to be a better player at his position, but the one thing that makes Cox an intriguing player is his speed. He is a fast, aggressive player that accelerates to the football and hits through his opponents. He also does a nice job with his angles and tackling in space.
He can learn to not take false steps and become better at using his hands to avoid and disengage from blockers. That kind of speed and desire he has to get to the football can't be taught.
It may take him awhile to develop physically and on the field, but the Utes are getting a heck of an athlete.
He is rated as a 2 star by Rivals.com, but I expect that ranking to improve.
Quarterback/athlete - Chad Hekking
Hekking is the biggest wild card of the recent commitments. He plays quarterback for a high school team that runs a Wing T scheme. Utah was his only current offer and he was recruited as an athlete. He isn't strong mechanically, like most quarterbacks who play in the Wing T, but it's evident he's a big, strong athlete.
The Utes saw him in camp so they obviously like his athleticism and project that they can use him at another position later in his career. The key with Hekking is something that gives Utah a distinct advantage to make up for their lack of elite recruiting. He plans on taking his LDS mission and that means he will come back to the program two years more mature. He is listed at 6'4" 225 right now, but there is no telling how much bigger and stronger he may grow to be and he'll have two extra years to do that before at Utah.
Offensive Tackle - Nick Carman
If there is one player out of the four that is probably the safest bet as a player, it's the most recent commitment, Carman. He showed really light feet as a junior and flashed great potential in pass protection. As a senior he has taken it to another level. He is finishing blocks and is way more dominant in the run game. He is fitting his blocks and play very well positionally.
His pass blocking is even better. He is very balanced in his pass set and delivers a solid punch. I don't care that his next biggest offer is Boise State. He looks like he can develop into a very good starting left tackle for the Utes and has NFL potential.
Even if Utah landed players like Gustin, James, and Masina, it's the players like Carman that are the foundation of their program. The lightly recruited players that show potential, but aren't finished products. They need to be developed and grow, both physically and on the field, in order to be the kind of athletes that can compete in the Pac-12.
Whittingham and his staff have to work harder in recruiting than just looking at the obvious players. They need to to find the 3 star players who don't have the USC or UCLA offers because they aren't going to win head to head recruiting battles with those schools most of the time.
The best player that Utah has had on their roster since they have been a part of the Pac-12 is defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Based on the way he played in his last couple of years in school, it would be easy to assume that he must have been a player that was comparable to someone like Ngata in size and ranking coming out of high school.
That assumption would be way off. Lotulelei was 6'4" and weighed 245. He was a 3 star recruit. After spending a couple of years at a junior college ,he ended up weighing 320 and finishing his career as an All-American.
Not many 3 stars are going to end up being Lotulelei, but the Utes have to find players that may grow into a player like that and develop them. That's not an easy task, but if they keep landing players with high upside like the four they just landed, then some of these guys will have the chance to be much better players than what they were projected to be.