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How Utah’s Pac-12 success and coaching consistency helped Utes close strong on 2022 early signing day

Utes officially sign 20 on early signing day, including two key flips on Wednesday

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham hoists Pac-12 trophy after Utes beat the Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game.
Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham hoists the Pac-12 trophy after the Utes beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah’s national brand is growing stronger.

A combination of the Utes’ late-season success this year, punching a ticket to the Rose Bowl by winning their first Pac-12 championship against Oregon, and stability at the coaching position in a time where the coaching carousel has been operating at lightning speed helped Utah close strong on national early signing day.

Four players who were on the fence committed to Utah on Wednesday: Three-star linebacker Justin Medlock, three-star linebacker/defensive end Kaeo Akana, three-star athlete Justius Lowe and three-star offensive tackle Keith Olson.

“We really feel that we got some real good players that were on the fence to sign today. I think, obviously, a great deal of that has to do with the success we had late in the season. Winning the Pac-12 championship, first and foremost, was probably the biggest factor in getting these guys on the fence to come our way,” Whittingham said.

College football’s opening signing period was held traditionally on the first Wednesday in February, but starting in 2017, the NCAA instituted an early signing period in December, meaning that recruits could sign with schools two months earlier.

Some college coaches and officials want the opening signing period moved back to at least January, if not February, to give new coaches a better chance to recruit.

For Whittingham and Utah, however, the chaos of coaches leaving and arriving gives them an advantage in the December early signing period. Whittingham, who has been the head man at Utah since the 2005 season, is the second-longest tenured coach in Division I football.

“It does accelerate things and and I think it really favors and helps out programs that have stability in their coaching staffs because they’re not scrambling. When the coaching changes occur, they don’t have as much time to recruit. Selfishly, I think (the December signing period) is good for us,” Whittingham said.

Utah, which was expected to have a smaller number of signees on Wednesday than in years past, got signatures from 20 players on Wednesday, thanks to signing day pledges and commitments in the two weeks leading up to national signing day.

With an average rating of 0.8702 according to 247Sports, Utah’s 2022 class is one of the best ever in terms of average player rating. Only Utah’s 2021 class, which featured four four-star players — including linebacker Ethan Calvert, who is the third-highest rated recruit Utah has landed — ranks higher.

As of Wednesday night, Utah’s class is ranked 36th in the country by 247Sports and 37th in the country by Rivals. 247Sports ranked the Utes’ class 4th in the Pac-12.

“We feel like we took care of most all our needs. We held back, you know, several scholarships for portal and late qualifiers, whatever comes about in the next 9-10 months because recruiting is never over anymore with the (transfer) portal in place,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham said Utah’s brand is growing stronger every year, and this year it was helped by the Pac-12 championship.

“We’re getting in just about every single door that we want to get in now,” he said. “We’re not getting all the players obviously, you got to still battle and try to get them signed, but we’re getting in doors every year. It’s getting to the point where there’s almost no door that we can’t at least get in or get some interest from the player because our name is starting to be much more prominent out there.”

Another big selling point for Utah is their development of players, including how many the Utes have sent to the NFL.

“We illustrate that to a lot of the players that we are recruiting. We’ve had services throughout the country that rates as far as your development of players within your program, and we always come out very high in those services,” Whittingham said.

“If they come here, they get a great chance to develop into the best player they can become.”

Utah officially signed 20 players on Wednesday, and 18 of the 20 players signed were high schoolers. Adding in wide receiver Sidney Mbanasor and Lowe, who are committed but have yet to fax in their national letter of intent as of publishing on Wednesday night, the Utes will likely finish with a 22-person signing class from the early signing period. Whittingham said nine players will be early enrollees and will be on campus in January.

Defensive back Sione Vaki and defensive end Keanu Tanuvasa, who committed to Utah in 2019 and 2020, respectively, return from their missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this year and count as part of the 2022 class. Defensive lineman Dallas Vakalahi signed on Wednesday but will be serving a church mission, according to Whittingham.

Utah’s 2022 class is headlined by four-star linebacker Lander Barton — brother of Cody Barton and Jackson Barton, who both went on to the NFL.

“Cody was not quite as college ready (as Lander) when he was in high school, he was a little undersized. He worked his tail off to put on the weight when he got here,” Whittingham said. “Lander has got a much bigger frame. He’s a couple inches taller, probably 15 pounds heavier than Cody was coming out of high school. So to take nothing away from Cody, he was terrific linebacker for us. But we think Lander’s upside is tremendous.”

Barton, who attended Brighton High School, decided to stay home and continue his family’s legacy at Utah. The 6-4, 215-pound linebacker is Utah’s highest-rated recruit in the 2022 class. Barton ranks 22nd nationally at his position, according to 247Sports. He had offers from Michigan, Notre Dame, LSU, USC, Stanford Texas and Oregon, among others.

Four-star quarterback Nate Johnson (6-2, 183-pounds) signed with the Utes over Michigan. He’s one of two quarterbacks to sign in the 2022 class, with 6-2, 195-pound three-star quarterback Brandon Rose.

Johnson is rated as the 16th best quarterback in the nation.

Whittingham said three-star running back Jaylon Glover, the only running back Utah signed in the 2022 class, reminded him of NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

“Terrific running back in Jaylon Glover from Florida. Over 6,000 yards rushing in his (high school career), over 2,000 yards this year,” he said.

“He’s got a chance to be very good and in the same style of play as Maurice.”

Two of the players that committed to Utah on signing day, linebacker Medlock and linebacker/defensive end Akana, rank as Utah’s third and fourth highest-rated players of the class, according to 247Sports.

Medlock, 6-1, 210 pounds, was originally committed to Miami, but flipped to Utah on Wednesday, while Akana flipped from Boise State to Utah.

Whittingham called the duo of Barton and Medlock “two of the best linebackers in the West, maybe in the country.”

“We felt like we really bolstered that position group. It is going to make for great competition, and that always brings out the best of everybody,” Whittingham said.

Utah’s Pac-12 championship certainly made an impact late in the recruiting process, and especially on signing day.

“The best thing you can do for recruiting and the thing that can make the biggest impact is winning. It’s great to have coaches that can evaluate and that can develop relationships with players, but if you want to say what is the one thing that boosts recruiting more than anything else, it’s winning,” Whittingham said.


Utah Football 2022 Early Signing Class 

Player Position 247 Sports Star Rating Height Weight Hometown/Previous School
Player Position 247 Sports Star Rating Height Weight Hometown/Previous School
Ka'eo Akana DL Three-stars 6-3 217 Honolulu, Hawaii/Roosevelt HS
Lander Barton LB Four-stars 6-4 221 Cottonwood Heights, Utah/Brighton HS
Elijah Davis DB Three-stars 6-1 165 Winter Haven, Fla./Auburndale Senior HS
Jaylon Glover RB Three-stars 5-8 211 Lakeland, Fla./Lake Gibson HS
Nate Johnson QB Four-stars 6-1 195 Clovis, Calif.
Tao Johnson WR Three-stars 6-1 179 Idaho Falls, Idaho/Thunder Ridge HS
Logan Kendall TE N/A (transfer) 6-3 273 Cheney, Wash./Idaho
Chase Kennedy DL Three-stars 6-3 224 Dallas, Texas/The Episcopal School of Dallas
Tyler Knaak OL Three-stars 6-6 316 Cottonwood Heights, Utah/Brighton HS
Jocelyn Malaska DB Three-stars 6-1 172 Bethany, Okla./Bethany HS
Justin Medlock LB Three-stars 6-0 213 Missouri City, Texas/Manvel HS
Landon Morris TE N/A (transfer) 6-6 210 Indianapolis, Ind./Syracuse
Keith Olson OL Three-stars 6-6 295 Napavine, Wash./Napavine HS
Ryan Peppins WR Three-stars 5-8 149 Birmingham, Ala./Thompson HS
Chris Reed WR Three-stars 6-1 188 Orlando, Fla./Wekiva HS
Brandon Rose QB Three-stars 6-3 210 Temecula, Calif./Murrieta Valley HS
Carson Tabaracci ATH Three-stars 6-2 219 Park City, Utah/Park City HS
Keanu Tanuvasa DL Three-stars 6-3 268 Mission Viejo, Calif./Mission Viejo HS
Dallas Vakalahi DL Three-stars 6-2 307 West Valley, Utah/West HS
Sione Vaki DB Three-stars 6-0 207 Antioch, Calif./Liberty HS