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February 7, 2013

Utes fill needs

The headline for the 2012 National Signing Day read 'Best class ever'. The contrast in headlines for 2013 is telling. The lower-key presentation of the 2013 class is symbolic of a lot of things.

Following a 5-7 season and clinging to a barely-above-.500 record at 13-12 since joining the Pac-12, the Utes have learned that life in a BCS conference is tough sledding. No doubt the Utes have brought in better talent, and doors previously closed to them have opened since joining the BCS ranks. However, as much as that is true, another painful reality is that other Pac-12 schools are bringing in equivalent, or better athletes every season, too.

For Utah, the recruiting game has been all about keeping up with the Joneses; a tireless, perennial struggle. The Utes, it seems, have figured out that there is no quick-fix or resolution, but rather, patiently placing layer upon layer that builds, or re-builds the foundation for a program trying to reach new levels.

"I think we're holding our own [recruiting against Pac-12 teams]. As I mentioned last year, it's a process we're still working towards becoming one of the premier schools in the Pac-12," Whittingham assured. "It takes time, and I think in the past two or three years, I think we've stacked up pretty good."

So with a No. 37 ranked class on the books, Utah is no doubt pleased, but it also knows all too well that a solid recruiting class is no guarantee of future results.

With all that in mind, the 2013 headline fittingly reads 'Utes fill needs', and the Utes did exactly that on National Signing Day.

At a signing day press conference, head coach Kyle Whittingham discussed his team's biggest needs in order of priority.

"The most pressing concern was the defensive line, and we signed six [defensive linemen]," Whittingham confirmed. "So [the defensive line] was the primary area of emphasis."

Though Utah focused on bringing in more junior college talent on the defensive line, it came away with just one, Sese Ianu. However, the quality of the freshmen defensive linemen indicates that any one of them, or several, could be an immediate impact for the needful Utes.

A trio of freshmen hailing from Euless (Texas) Trinity High School each have a chance to be early contributors, or early playing time. Sam Tevi, Keio Vaenuku are defensive linemen and Salesi Uhatafe is an offensive tackle who already has DI size.

Whittingham continued identifying his trouble spots.

"Secondary areas, or next up, would be running back and quarterback. We helped ourselves with four running backs and three quarterbacks," Whittingham said. "We added depth to those positions, and other than those spots, it was really across the board and helped ourselves at each position."

Utah brought in four running backs, each with impressive credentials.

Devontae Booker, a JUCO transfer, is in the best position to contribute immediately. Last season, Booker rushed for 1,472 yards and 15 TDs and is also a good kick return threat with touchdown returns of 94 and 95 yards last season.

Adding depth in the backfield, Utah brought in three promising freshman running backs in Troy McCormick, Marcus Williams and Dre'Vian Young.

"We expect all three of those guys to come in and make an impact immediately," Whittingham remarked.

Joining Travis Wilson and Adam Schulz are three freshman signal callers in Brandon Cox, Conner Manning and Micah Thomas.

Each signal caller comes to Utah very highly touted, providing the best depth, and quality of depth the Utah football program has enjoyed throughout the Whittingham era.

"That is unique. We usually don't take three [quarterbacks], it's usually just one, or two [in one class]," Whittingham acknowledged the rarity of bringing in three quarterbacks in one class.

Praising the trio's athleticism, Whittingham acknowledged that all three quarterbacks can run, and the 9th year head man commented on Cox's size and speed, reportedly clocked at below 4.5/40 speed.

At 6-foot-2 192, Cox is expected to continue his development and max out at 215-220 pounds by the time he fully develops. Cox has already enrolled in classes, and is the only quarterback signee who will participate in spring camp.

Whittingham praised Manning's high school accomplishments, which found him eclipsing many of former USC great Matt Barkley's Orange County passing records, evidence of his prolific passing capabilities.

Micah Thomas, who will get an opportunity at quarterback may end up switching positions down the road, considering his 4.39/40 speed, had a successful career in Houston (Texas) as a dual-threat quarterback.

Not mentioned as a top-three priority, the Ute secondary was also in dire need of replenishment with the graduation of Ryan Lacy, Moe Lee and Reggie Topps at Corner/Nickel, and an already thin Safety position.

In response, Utah added Davion Orphey and Hipolito Corporan at corner and Tevin Carter at Safety.

"Orphey and Carter are going to be key pieces to our secondary. That's why you recruit a junior college player, is for immediate help and to get guys that can step in sooner," Whittingham revealed. "Hipolito Corporan, we were really high on him is a big, physical guy who is going to help us as well."

Ute receivers have also been a growing concern over the past two seasons, loaded with talent but plagued with consistent drops. Add in the loss of Reggie Dunn and Devonte Christopher to graduation, and this was another area of need for the Utah offense.

Two high school receivers, X'avier Shepherd and Dominique Hatfield and JUCO transfer, Andre Lewis, the class' only four star recruit should contribute immediately.

Last recruiting cycle, Utah's most critical need was along the offensive line, which Utah filled by signing eight offensive linemen, but the Utes shored up on the defensive side as well, also signing eight. The beefing up of numbers along the trenches represented the first layer of the many requisite layers to come.

Separately, Utah's last two recruiting classes have been solid, but when combined, the 2012 and 2013 classes become exponentially more compelling.

While the Utes have filled immediate needs with seven junior college transfers, each with a chance, or even expectation of contributing immediately, the 17 high school signees provide longevity and stability for the future.

Geographically, 11 players in Utah's 2013 class hail from California, seven from Texas and three from Utah, an uncharacteristically small number for the Utes. Due to new NCAA rules, the Utes could not literally sign several local recruits, but ultimately, up to seven Utah natives could end up joining the Utes.

"Utah is always going to be our priority, and we always want to make sure we do a good job here first, before [recruiting] anywhere else," Whittingham reassured.

Specific position groups aside, in general, the Utes looked to increase their team speed and size, noting that each has been a glaring deficiency since joining the Pac-12.

"Without a doubt," Whittingham immediately retorted when asked if speed had been his team's biggest issue since joining the Pac-12 conference two seasons ago.

"[Troy] McCormick is a 10/500 meter guy, Dre'Vian Young is out of Texas was second in the state in the 200 meter," Whittingham rattled off his list of speedy new Utes. "Marcus Williams, our running back out of Vegas was in a combine with 1,300 other athletes at that combine. So we feel like we really made in-roads on our lack of speed, and we will continue to make [speed] a priority."


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