SALT LAKE CITY – After Utah capped off its remarkable 13-0 season with a 31-17 Sugar Bowl rout over Alabama, the college football world is looking at coach Kyle Whittingham and trying to dissect how his program has become one of the best in the nation.
The win helped the Utes finish No. 2 in The Associated Press poll, but the success under Whittingham has been well sustained. Utah has won 37 games the past four seasons and has made it a habit of beating quality programs in bowl games.
The program was already on solid footing when Whittingham took over for Urban Meyer – who guided Utah to a BCS berth in 2004 before leaving for Florida and winning two national championships with the Gators – but Whittingham has taken the Utes to another level.
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Whittingham points to a number of reasons why his team has been so successful, but he said one of the biggest comes from Utah's unique approach to recruiting. Instead of recruits who have already reached their peak athletically, the Utes go after a different type of player.
"With our philosophy, we try to recruit the raw material – athleticism and speed are the priority," he said. "Ideally, you want big-framed guys that can run and are athletic. That's the starting point. I think our assistant coaches have done a very good job of finding those type of players.
"And from there, you recruit, develop and manage. You recruit the raw material. You get them in your program and then you develop them. And then, of course, you have to manage your talent. You have to make sure they're going to class and doing all the things they must do. That's really our equation for success."
It's a formula that has worked quite well.
In February, Utah signed the nation's No. 44 class overall, ahead of programs like Arizona, Georgia Tech, Colorado, Iowa, Boston College and Washington. It was also the top non-"Big Six" conference class in the nation, ahead of Mountain West rivals TCU and BYU.
With our philosophy, we try to recruit the raw material – athleticism and speed are the priority. Ideally, you want big-framed guys that can run and are athletic.
- Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
"Our philosophy has always been to recruit the best players, regardless of position, and this year was no different," Whittingham said. "We feel that this class will add significantly to our effort to increase team speed and athleticism across the board."
Whittingham said the victory over Alabama helped open quite a few doors.
"No question about it," Whittingham said. "We had several guys that were on the fence prior to the game that jumped in the boat almost immediately after that game. We felt the effects right away.
"However, with recruiting being as accelerated as it is now with commitments coming so much earlier than before, we think the residual effects two or three years from now will be even greater than what they were with this immediate class that we signed."
Along with recruiting the raw material, Whittingham has stuck with a basic plan on parts of the country he recruits. The Utes' No. 1 priority is their home state. Utah has become a recruiting hotbed lately with the talent level increasing significantly as the population has grown.
"We do not want to miss a kid in-state," Whittingham said. "Recruiting is not an exact science and you're not always right on the money, but the thing is that we want to give an accurate evaluation to every kid in the state. That's our first and foremost priority."
Instead of splitting the state up, Whittingham gives total control of Utah's in-state efforts to assistant Jay Hill. While it might sound overwhelming, Whittingham said he believes it's the right move.
"There are about 80 high schools that play football in the state of Utah, and that's not really too big of a load for one guy to handle," Whittingham said. "I just believe there is more continuity. If everything runs through one guy, then I think that's the best way to do it.
"Also, we have a great walk-on program here at Utah, and for obvious reasons the vast majority of guys are from Utah. So if you have one guy that's covering the state, you not only get the continuity in the scholarship athletes but he's also up to speed on walk-on targets."
Utah's in-state recruiting efforts used to be spearheaded by Gary Andersen before he took the head coaching job at Utah State. Hill, however, has hit the ground running and has already sparked a lot of interest with top local players and high school coaches.
"Jay does a tremendous job, and he puts a ton of effort into it," two-time defending state champion coach Les Hamilton of Sandy (Utah) Alta said. "He works harder than any other coach that recruits here in-state. He already did a great job last year, but he's going to make it even harder for Utah kids to get away from them."
That's exactly what Whittingham likes to hear.
"He's a bulldog," Whittingham said of Hill. "He's willing to do all those things that you have to do to be a great recruiter. He puts in the time commitment and the work ethic. There are no shortcuts in recruiting. It's a job that boils down to hard work. Jay is enthusiastic, energetic and really did an outstanding job for us last year when he took over the state late in the game. He ended up getting some very good players."
Outside the state, the Utes' two other main target areas are California and Texas, but it's the Lone Star State that has really become fertile recruiting territory for them. When he was hired in 2005, Whittingham made Texas an area of focus, and the results speak for themselves.
On the Utes' 2008 roster, there were nine Texans, including Robert Conley, a four-year starter on the offensive line, and Brice McCain, a three-year starter at cornerback. On the roster still is starting cornerback Brandon Burton and defensive lineman Derrick Shelby, who started as a redshirt freshman. One other notable Texan who has made a huge impact early is receiver Jereme Brooks. He played a lot as a true freshman and a sophomore and will start in 2009.
"Texas is geographically so big the big schools can't cover all the territory, so we feel there are a lot of guys in Texas that get overlooked, especially in the outlaying areas," Whittingham said. "Texas takes their football very seriously. It's a high priority for them.
"The guys we get from Texas, we put them in a weight program and it's nothing new to them. They've been there, done that in their high school program. Most cases you get a very finished product with the players you recruit out of Texas. They're mentally tough, disciplined and exhibit those types of characteristics."
Utah also supplements its recruiting efforts with a few impact junior college players from the same areas that have been successful on the high school front. In the 2009 class, the Utes scored the nation's No. 1 junior college player in James Aiono of Snow College in Epraim, Utah, plus they added one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Terrance Cain from Blinn College in Brenham, Texas.
While junior college recruiting will never be the foundation for Utah, Whittingham said he believes it can be a big help.
"Most often you're targeting a specific deficiency you have, but not always, though," he said. "There are certain positions, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where the learning curve isn't as steep. The junior college player only has a limited amount of time, so you have to be able to get guys that can make the biggest impact in a short amount of time.
"For example, in our scheme cornerbacks and defensive linemen, I wouldn't say, are the easiest position to learn, but we structure our defensive scheme so they can play the fastest. You can play quicker and get up to speed faster at those two positions. Those two positions are usually what we look for often in a junior college player."
With all the success it would be easy for Utah to deviate from what got it to the top of the Mountain West by spreading out and targeting some new recruiting territories. Whittingham, however, doesn't plan on fixing what's not broken.
"There's only so much manpower," Whittingham said. "Only nine guys can go out and seven at a time, so you don't want to spread yourself too thin. We feel like we've got excellent contacts and made some good inroads into those areas that we recruit. Those are going to be the primaries.
"We do have some secondary areas, mostly out West, but for the most part we'll concentrate our efforts in the key areas and that's where the bulk of our team is going to come from. We're not going to change what's worked for us and gotten us to this point."
Because of the success, there are more doors open to Whittingham's program than in the past. And when he walks through them, he's able to share with recruits and their families the reasons why his program is one of the best in the nation.
"I was [an] assistant back here in the mid-90s, and when we'd go into a home in California, we'd have to explain where we're from, what conference we play in and who we play," Whittingham said. "But now getting in doors is much easier and people know who we are. There is very little educating we have to do about our university.
"We think we have a lot to offer. Obviously our track record in football, with the eight bowl wins in a row, the nation's longest winning streak, there are a lot of positive things going on from the football standpoint, which is very important to a recruit. Secondly, the academics here are extremely strong. We've got a great med school. Our engineering department, our business department, you name it, gives us a lot to offer from an academic standpoint."
In the end, people looking for some secret reason why Utah has become so successful will be surprised it boils down to the basics on the field and on the recruiting front.
"You have to surround yourself with intelligence, character and energy," Whittingham said. "You take those things, recruit the basic raw material, develop it and maintain it, and that's going to win you a lot of football games. It's worked wonders here at Utah, and it's something we plan on continuing."