This is Kyle Whittingham's third recruiting class at Utah, and while it's not the highest rated class he's put together since becoming the head coach with the Utes (that would go to last year's class), it doesn't mean the recruits aren't as good. Yet no one knows for sure how good this Utah class will turn out to be, especially since in the past undervalued Utah classes have proven to be far above their expected worth.
When recruiting at the non-BCS level, it's pretty clear national rankings have a minimal impact. And while it's always nice to use them as proof a program is heading in the right direction, the star system for non-BCS classes rarely tell the story. This is often the case because the non-BCS schools recruit the same talent as every other non-BCS school. More often than not, these kids aren't skilled enough to get a scholarship offer from big time BCS programs and though sometimes a program like Utah can win the recruiting war with bigger schools, this frequently proves to be an anomaly rather than a trend.
The Utes were rated by Rivals.com as having the 3rd best recruiting class in the Mountain West Conference. This has traditionally been where the Utes have fallen over the past few years and it's clear that hasn't hindered their ability to win in the Mountain West. The evidence here suggests that recruiting rankings are nothing more than a ploy to sell magazines and have little bearing on whether a team can and cannot compete. Case and point, San Diego State has put together some of the strongest recruiting classes in Mountain West history according to publications like Rivals and Scout, yet they haven't been able to translate those rankings into success on the football field. Last season San Diego State won only 3 games, down from 5 the year before. And they're the only Mountain West team that has yet to play in a bowl game since the conference formed in 1999. San Diego State also has 17 players in the NFL currently, compared to 16 for BYU and 18 for Utah. That talent hasn't been able to get them to a level where they are competing for a conference championship, or even a bowl game.
San Diego State's dearth of success recently proves, or at least helps make the case, that recruiting numbers don't amount to a hill of beans when it's all said and done. A recruiting class is judged by their ability to succeed on the football field, not by how many stars they accumulate in February. On that level, Utah has succeeded and I think Kyle Whittingham will continue to take 2 and 3 star recruits and turn them into solid players worthy of playing in the NFL.
So how does this class rate? Well on the surface, as I said earlier, it doesn't appear to be the strongest class Whittingham has put together. However this could be by design rather than poor recruiting technique by the coaching staff. This seems logical, especially when you examine the class and the path Whittingham wants to take Utah football.
It's clear Whittingham put an emphasis on defense with this class. But beyond that, he's also focused in on speed, which I personally like. This is a change from the traditional recruiting Utah did under Ron McBride and even Urban Meyer and I credit the rise of TCU for this. When the Frogs joined the conference, it was clear their defensive speed gave them a leg up over conference opponents. We won't know for a couple of years if this change benefits the Utes much like it has TCU, but I'd like to think it should.
Nai Fotu is probably one of the biggest gets for the Utes in this recruiting class. He had offers from Arizona, Oregon State and Hawaii, but ultimately chose the Utes. While he'll most likely spend time on the scout team, he should be a big impact for the Utes in 2008.
Utah's biggest need on defense, at least when looking toward the 2008 season, most likely will be the linebacker position. The Utes will lose three linebackers after this season and so the coaches focused in on this position. Jamel King, Justin Taplin-Ross, Thor Salanoa and Maurice Neal were all signees and will definitely utilize the speed aspect of this defense.
Of course Utah's biggest loss on defense will be that of Eric Weddle, who graduated last season. Replacing him will be nearly impossible, though Utah has some strong prospects with JC transfer Robert Johnson and DeShawn Richard. This might be Utah's weakest position on defense, at least early in the season. But I expect, especially with four junior college transfers, they will grow and raise their level of play by the middle of the season.
Offensively the Utes continued building a foundation for success down the line. Griffin Robles, Corbin Louks and Chad Manis are all quarterback recruits for the Utes, clearly signaling that the team is building for the post-Brian Johnson era. Johnson will be a junior this year after using a redshirt last season due to an injury. Robles, rated as one of Utah's best high school quarterbacks, will go on an LDS mission for two years, returning just in time to fight for the quarterback spot at the start of the 2009 season.
Utah's biggest get on offense though was Matt Asiata, a running back who transferred from Snow College. The Utes struggled last season at the running back spot and Asiata should be expected to compete for the starting role come fall camp. He'll battle it out with Darryl Poston and Darrell Mack, both returning players. It isn't unreasonable to expect Asiata runs for 1,000 yards this season. And his quickness and toughness will add diversity to Utah's offense, something it sorely lacked last season.
The Utes didn't really need to recruit the wide receiver position, as Utah will return most of their receivers this year and should have a big bulk returning in 2008 as well. They did however sign Jereme Brooks, a quick receiver out of Clear Creek, Texas. While it's unlikely he'll perform right away for Utah, he could become a staple with this core in '08.
Evaluating a recruiting class is not an exact science and we can only speculate as to what a player's impact will be. With that said, I think the coaches did what they set out to do and so you can't really fault them with this class. Utah is clearly adjusting its philosophy around speed and it will be exciting to see this transpire on the football field. And I can't wait.