The early signing period for college football begins Wednesday and for Utah, and other programs around the country, this one will be different. 

In October, the NCAA formally approved a one-year waiver on football scholarships for Division I programs, allowing schools to sign as many as seven more players beyond the normal 25-scholarship limit as a way for coaches to replace up to seven players who leave for the transfer portal.

This upcoming class, comprised of high school and junior college recruits as well as Division I transfers, can be as large as 32.

As of Monday morning, Utes have 11 commits heading into the early signing period, including four-star recruits in linebacker Lander Barton out of Brighton High and quarterback Nate Johnson from Clovis, California. 

Other projected signees include running back Jaylon Glover (Lakeland, Florida); athlete Carson Tabaracci (Park City High); offensive tackle Tyler Knaak (Brighton High); cornerback Jocelyn Malaska (Bethany, Oklahoma); quarterback Brandon Rose (Murrieta, California); wide receiver Ryan Peppins (Alabaster, Alabama); wide receiver Chris Reed (Apopka, Florida); safety Elijah Davis (Auburndale, Florida); offensive lineman Tavo Motuapuaka (Mililani, Hawaii); and athlete Tao Johnson (Idaho Falls, Idaho).

The transfer portal has changed recruiting. And with coaches being fired earlier in the season, that’s created even more chaos. 

“You combine that with the portal, which, by the way, is going to go crazy this year. It’s going to be the most active ever this offseason. You are already seeing it really heat up,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “Between (coaching changes) and the ability to move without penalty, it continues to change and evolve. And it will continue to change and evolve down the road. We save X amount of scholarships for portal kids because they aren’t in it until late in the game so you have to have some scholarships in your pocket to accommodate that.”

Entering the 2021 season, Utah signed several players from the transfer portal, with mixed results. Quarterback Charlie Brewer was named the starter, but he left after the third game. Running backs T.J. Pledger and Chris Curry, defensive back Brandon McKinney and wide receiver Theo Howard all helped the Utes’ depth. 

What might have been: Charlie Brewer, the transfer portal and second-guesses

Whittingham is glad the NCAA is allowing schools to sign more players this season. 

“That’s a big help. It was a great move by the NCAA to do that. You still have to balance it,” he said. “The bases of our recruiting and the place where we recruit the most high school athletes won’t change. But now it’s supplemented by the portal.

“There are far less opportunities for junior college players because more teams seem to be going the high school route and supplementing that with transfer guys. JC guys used to fill that bill but now it’s shifted. … If you look historically going back 25 years, we always had six to 10 JC guys in every class. That number has shrunk to one, two or three.”

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas dances in the end zone after scoring a touchdown against the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. The Utes landed Thomas from the JC ranks, which happens less and less frequently these days because of the transfer portal. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Running back Tavion Thomas was one of the few junior college players signed by the Utes last season and that worked out well as he rushed for 1,041 yards and 20 touchdowns. 

Whittingham said he doesn’t have a specific number of scholarships set aside for the transfer portal. 

“It just depends on the specific needs for that year. The reason why you keep some of those scholarships in your pocket is because the needs are not manifest yet,” he said. “You have two or three guys transfer out at a certain position group that can be pretty damaging. You’d better have something in your pocket to be able to get that situation rectified.”

At quarterback, Utah saw four-star quarterback Peter Costelli enter the transfer portal in November. He signed with the Utes a year ago and never played a down. 

The coach was “disappointed” with Costelli’s decision. 

“Peter’s a great kid. He hadn’t been in the program very long. We would have loved to have had him stay and show what he could do. But he decided that moving on was in his best interest. I guess there’s a lot of people. … The portal is exploding.

“There are over 7,000 names in there, Peter being one of those. We thank him for his time here. He’s a hard worker and he was completely dedicated to the program. He just felt like it was in his best interest to move on. We wish him well.”

Part of the reason Costelli decided to leave could be because of the strength of Utah’s quarterbacks room, which includes sophomore Cam Rising and freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson, with Johnson expected to sign this week.

“Could be. That’s part of it,” Whittingham said. “With what we hope to secure in recruiting from this class, I think it could have factored in.”

Utah Utes quarterback Peter Costelli (8) hands off to Utah Utes running back TJ Pledger (5).
Utah quarterback Peter Costelli hands off to TJ Pledger during the Red and White game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Costelli informed the Utes that he is entering the transfer portal. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah’s coaching staff invested a lot of time and money recruiting Costelli, only to see him walk away during his first season in the program. But Whittingham and his staff will continue to recruit players hard despite the risks.

“You still bust your butt and do everything you can in recruiting to get the players that you targeted into your program. You often spend hundreds of hours on particular kids and when they get here, sometimes they have a quick exit and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Whittingham said. “Conversely, there’s kids that you spend hardly any time on and they fall into your lap and end up being great players.

“So there’s no guarantee that time spent on a player translates to how good he’s going to be. It’s not an exact science. You do often times spend tons of man hours and time for a short-lived career. That’s just how it goes, I guess.”

View Comments

As the cliche goes, recruiting is the lifeblood of a program. 

When asked in mid-November about why Oregon has been so successful under coach Mario Cristobal — who has since left to take the job at Miami — Whittingham pointed to bringing talented players into the program. 

“Recruiting. In a word, recruiting. That’s what it’s all about at this level. If you do it the right way, then you’ve got a chance,” Whittingham said. “They’ve done an outstanding job recruiting the last several years and they’ve done a great job this year as well. It’s tough to outcoach good recruiting. That’s what they’ve been doing and that’s why they’ve been winning so many games. Not to take anything away from them as a staff coaching-wise, but the No. 1 criteria is recruiting and talent.”

It’s all about recruiting. And the recruiting process, in terms of where teams find players to address immediate needs, is changing. 

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.