The state of Utah has long held a reputation for producing a large number of FBS-level football players, despite the state's relatively small population. The state has historically been an especially fertile recruiting ground for in-state programs Utah and BYU. However, in recent years, a number of BCS programs have made Utah a recruiting priority, turning the state into one of the West's most productive football hotspots.
As the level of high school football has improved in Utah, it appears that college football's elite programs have taken notice. Since 2011, 38 players from Utah high schools have received scholarship offers from BCS programs. That number isn't surprising to those who know the state best.
"The quality of football in the state of Utah has gone up every single year for the last several years," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham - whose team has risen to national prominence with a foundation of homegrown talent. "It's changed dramatically in the 18 years that I've been at the University of Utah. When I first got here in 1994, there were only a handful of athletes coming out of the state. I think it was last year or the year before we had 40 plus [FBS signees]."
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Utah's move to the Pac-12 has been a factor in the increased attention on in-state recruits, and has changed the dynamics of recruiting in the state. The newly found BCS conference affiliation brings Whittingham's program an improved reputation nationally, but also increased recruiting activity from out-of-state programs as well. This year, Utah high school athletes have committed to out-of-state BCS programs such as Alabama, Arizona, UCLA, and Cincinnati. Schools such as Michigan, Stanford, Washington, Nebraska and Colorado are also actively recruiting in Utah and have signed top-level players in recent years.
"Utah is one of those states where the talent level is undervalued because it really isn't on the national radar all too often," said Rivals.com West coast analyst Adam Gorney. "For Alabama and many other schools to come to Cottonwood to recruit Cooper Bateman, or UCLA or Arizona to come in and get commits already this recruiting cycle speaks to the state's strength in talent and its added visibility because of the Pac-12 affiliation."
For Whittingham, Utah's Pac-12 affiliation has been a boon to his program's recruiting efforts. "It's not really changing how we're recruiting, but it's changing the results. I would say 50 percent of the class we signed last year we would not have gotten had we not had the Pac-12 affiliation and the BCS affiliation. It's had a major impact on recruiting, and the last two classes we've signed have been outstanding. Hopefully we're going to start feeling the effects of that in the next two or three years as those kids become juniors and seniors," he said.
Although the recruiting battles for Utah prospects may get more intense as the Utes try to fend off other high profile programs, Whittingham is confident that his program will be able to keep the state's elite talent home.
"I know that more and more schools are coming in from outside and trying to cherry pick the cream of the crop," said Whittingham. "Before, when we did not have the Pac-12 affiliation, it was tough to compete against some of that but now we feel like we're on a level playing field and we're winning far more of those battles."
Some believe that the biggest beneficiaries of the increased attention brought by Utah's Pac-12 affiliation are the prospects that may have been overlooked in past years.
"In terms of what it means for Utah prospects, it can only be good news. Utah, BYU and Utah State are still going to pull a lot of the local talent, but for players like Bateman and others there is so much more exposure and it can only be a good thing," said Gorney. "With added exposure and the Pac-12 affiliation, there are a lot more opportunities for Utah prospects to get evaluated and seen on a national level."
Despite the increased attention, Whittingham has no intention of conceding the top in-state talent to other programs. "Utah is always going to be our starting point in recruiting. It's our priority, and our goal is to not miss anybody in the state of Utah as far as a misevaluation. We want to know about every player in the state. That's our objective. We want to give them a fair and honest evaluation and make sure we take care of things in our own backyard," he said.