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Patrick Kinahan: Utah football needs to take next step

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SALT LAKE CITY — Consecutive conference championships followed by the accompanying Rose Bowl appearances leaves no doubt Utah can annually contend in the Pac-12.

But postseason success and subpar performances in nonconference games also shows the Utes still have plenty of room for growth. The program has lost four consecutive bowl games, each of which were against Power Five teams in what has become a frequent occurrence.

Utah is 0-5 in Power Five nonconference games dating back to 2018, with the last win coming over West Virginia in the 2017 Heart of Dallas Bowl. Excluding the 2020 COVID-shortened season, which coach Kyle Whittingham adamantly is against counting, the Utes are 32-13 in conference games over the last five full seasons.

Marking the arc of the program, Utah has gone 23-4 in the Pac-12 the last three full seasons. The goal now is to start consistently winning nonconference and bowl games.

"Love the team that we've got coming back next year," Whittingham said. "Got a lot of talented players. Looking forward to working with them."

Adding to the optimism is an incoming recruiting class that is ranked in the top 25 for the first time in program history. Utah has six players on board ranked at least with four stars, trailing only Oregon at 18 and USC with 10.

Balancing rankings with results, the program already has proven the ability to build success with lower-ranked recruits. Nobody is arguing the Utes are a perennial superpower the likes of Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, but those programs spare no expense bringing in the best talent the game has to offer virtually every year.

Consider Georgia, who is playing for a second consecutive national championship next week, had five defensive players taken in the first-round of the NFL draft last spring. The other two programs combined for four players in the first round.

From those nine players, four received the highest ranking given to high school recruits. The lowest the others got was three stars.

Last year's was one of the rare examples of Utah having a player go in the first round. You remember star linebacker Devin Lloyd, whom Whittingham said was a "lightly recruited athlete" better known as a basketball player in high school.

It's not like Lloyd had gaudy statistics as a linebacker in high school, drawing the interest from recruits around the country. He didn't even play the position, instead lining up as a receiver and safety.

The Utah Utes' Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) runs the ball for a first down while playing the Penn State Nittany Lions in the 109th Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. The Penn State Nittany Lions won 35-21.
The Utah Utes' Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) runs the ball for a first down while playing the Penn State Nittany Lions in the 109th Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Monday, Jan. 2, 2023. The Penn State Nittany Lions won 35-21. (Photo: Ben B. Braun, Deseret News)

Utah's secret sauce to success is to identify and develop. These are the most important reasons Utah has made four appearances in the Pac-12 championship game over the last four full seasons.

Whittingham and his staff are experts at projecting a player's future three or four years down the line. Maybe not to the point in which he dominated last season at Utah, but the coaches envisioned a slender Lloyd with an added 30 pounds in college.

"We saw the raw material there and his frame and speed," Whittingham said in a Deseret News story. "We thought if we could put 20-30 pounds on him, he could be a real force at linebacker. We're not always right, but with Devin, we were right."

Lloyd is the latest example in a long line of peering into the future. Ja'Quinden Jackson is another, beginning this year as a quarterback before being moved to running back out of necessity due to injuries and personnel issues.

After losing out to walk-on Bryson Barnes to serve as Cam Rising's backup, Jackson, who broke several tackles in a 19-yard touchdown run against Penn State, rarely saw the field until making the switch.

All he did in the Pac-12 championship game against USC was rush for 105 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Henceforth, Jackson is a running back — and a professional prospect at that, too.

"It's one of the best developmental programs in the country. The numbers bear it out," said Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth, who coached on four USC teams that made consecutive Rose Bowl appearances from 2006-09.

In preparing for the championship game last month, Utah had only two four-star recruits apiece on offense and defense. USC surpassed that number just from the incoming transfers in the offseason.

Along the way, Utah also has sprinkled in some recruits with big-time credentials coming out of high school. Cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson (now with the Chicago Bears) and Clark Phillips III, who sat out the Rose Bowl to prepare for the draft, were two instant sensations in the last few years.

"You talk to first-year head coaches (and) the majority of them say they want to model their program after Utah," Roth said. "Identify diamonds in the rough and develop the daylights out them, chip on the shoulder, physicality and go and get some stars."

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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