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February 1, 2012

'Best class' in the books

National Signing Day has become a day that enables fans and coaches alike to make many proclamations according to which recruits have, or have not signed with their team, or their rivals.

Not prone to making big statements, University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham did not hesitate to make one, albeit with a caveat, Tuesday during a press conference held to discuss his latest recruiting class.

"I'd say, on paper, that this is the best class we've ever signed," Whittingham said after crediting the move to the Pac-12 as the reason for his recruiting success this cycle.

"Without a doubt, moving into the Pac-12 has been in effect. Is it at it's peak yet? I don't think so," Whittingham exclaimed. "Last year's class would have been the top rated class [at Utah], only to be surpassed by this year's class. We're hoping that it continues with that trend. The affiliation with the Pac-12 has been huge for our program, and for our recruiting."

The latest class, already being placed roughly within the Top 30 in the country would represent a 13 spot jump from last season's 43rd ranking, Whittingham said Tuesday afternoon that it could yet get better, pending announcements from other recruits.

Whittingham indicated strongly Tuesday that he felt Utah still had a great chance at landing another athlete or two this evening. Should one or the other of the two pending announcements swing Utah's way, this recruiting class could hover right around the Top 20 mark nationally.

"We've still got a couple players that are unsigned and out there that we feel very strongly that we have a good shot at," Whittingham said of recruits that had Utah on their radar. "We can't say anything about those guys right now, but hopefully in the next couple of hours we'll have definitive information."

The anatomy of the recruiting class was built around team needs, and geographic priorities, Whittingham said.

15 of the 26 commits hail from the State of Utah, something that is priority one according to Whittingham, who praised the emerging and increasing talent in-state, the reason it has become, and will stay top priority.

"The State of Utah is always our first priority. We put our money where our mouth is. We don't just say that, and then not recruit it," Whittingham stated. "The quality of football, and the sheer quantity of Division I players coming out of the state has risen every year for the last 12 to 15 years. Going forward, you'll see our roster continue to be very Utah-heavy."

In terms of need, the Utes feel strongly that they filled the team's needs, stocking up depth on both lines, with 15 of the incoming recruits playing either offensive or defensive line.

"We had a big need for big people up front. We took a pretty big hit [there] graduation-wise, and our numbers were down a little bit anyways in the trenches," Whittingham indicated. "

Re-stocking the shelves on the line wasn't the only focus, as moving into the Pac-12, Whittingham felt that a lack of size on the offensive line was a fairly glaring deficit in Utah's inaugural Pac-12 season. Not coincidentally then, Utes added size in both height and weight on the line.

"With the Pac-12 schedule that we faced, it was very apparent that we were not quite as big, primarily on the offensive line. On the defensive line, I didn't think there was a disparity," Whittingham observed. "But if you looked at offensive linemen, that was an area where we needed to bulk up; both heavier and taller guys."

The latest offensive line recruits range in height from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-7, with the majority ranging between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-7. Carlos Lozano, one of the gems of the class is listed at 6-foot-6, 385 pounds.

Weight-wise, Whittingham indicated that Lozano's weight was light compared to his actual, current weight, but did not elaborate with specifics. Another note on a junior college lineman, JUCO defensive lineman Sione Tupouata is a transfer from Snow College has three years to play three.

Whittingham indicated that recruiting heavier players was the goal, and that current, in-program players will also be pushed to bulk up weight-wise in the off-season as well.

In addition to filling in losses left by Tony Bergstrom, John Cullen on offensive line, and Derrick Shelby on the defensive side of the ball, other obvious recruiting focuses were on quarterback, given spots left vacant by the transfer of Tyler Shreve and Griff Robles since the end of the season.

While the Utes should be in good shape at corner in 2012, they made the position a secondary focus out on the recruiting trail, hoping to fill the shoes of Conroy Black, who emerged in his senior season as a solid, if not something close to a shut-down corner.

Whittingham also revealed that scholarships had also been dealt to return missionaries LT Fiilaga, a linebacker who was on the 2009 Utah roster and Hawaiian offensive lineman Kala Friel, who fits the mold of the larger, new-look Ute offensive lineman at 6-foot-4, 310 pounds prior to leaving on his mission.

Safety Quade Chappuis was awarded a scholarship last fall camp, and since the completion of the season, place kicker Coleman Petersen was also awarded a scholarship.

Five of the newest Utes will leave immediately for missions and will not step foot on campus prior to leaving. These players, labeled in the recruiting world as sign-and-sends are: Jake Jackson, Pasoni Tasini, Austin Lee, Vaha Vainuku and Nua Poteki.

In contrast, several of the latest recruits will participate in spring ball, including Hunter Dimick, Travis Wilson, Chase Hansen and Niasi Leota. Already on campus is the Utes' latest JC running back, Kelvin York, whom Whittingham compared to former Ute Matt Asiata in size, but added that York is "a couple of clicks faster in the forty".

Further breaking down the class, and following a rough Utah recruiting guideline, roughly 75% of the class is made up of high school seniors, with about 25% coming from the JUCO ranks.

To that end, 18 of the new Utes are high school freshman, while seven come to the Utes from junior colleges. Each of the junior college transfers, according to Whittingham Tuesday, will "either become starters, or be in heavy rotation."

The statement is indicative of several things, including the fact that Utah has some huge holes to fill, and that it is extremely confident in the ability of its latest round of recruits to fill those holes.

Whittingham indicated Tuesday that a decision about the vacant Offensive Coordinator position would come no later than Friday, but rumors are already flying about possible names and replacements for the recently departed Norm Chow.

Whittingham announced Tuesday afternoon that he is very confident about the quarterback situation, which has been very much clouded over the past year and recently made more-so by the recent transfers of two scholarship quarterbacks.

With the signing of two highly touted freshmen in Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen, in addition to Jon Hays and Jordan Wynn, Utah feels it has both the depth and talent necessary to compete and succeed in the Pac-12 going forward.

Wynn, who missed most of the season due to another shoulder injury, is expected to be the starter come spring ball, which starts on March 20. Whittingham updated Wynn's injury status at Tuesday's press conference.

"Of course Jordan Wynn is coming back," said Whittingham. "He's at full strength, and throwing with 100% productivity. He's got no limitations."


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