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How Utah football broke down ‘the fence’ and found success recruiting in Utah County

Quarterback Scott Mitchell was the first highly touted recruit from Utah County to cross that barrier in the 1980s. Here is why others have followed suit 

Utah Ute receiver Britain Covey poses after working out in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah’s football facility.
Utah Ute receiver Britain Covey poses after working out in Salt Lake City at the University of Utah’s football facility in 2019. Covey is one of many high-profile players the Utes have lured from the shadows of LaVelll Edwards Stadium in recent years.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham remembers a time when the program didn’t have much success recruiting Utah County athletes.

Back then, high-profile athletes from Utah County often chose to stay close to home and play at BYU for legendary coach LaVell Edwards.

There was a major exception, when Springville quarterback Scott Mitchell, who grew up a diehard Cougar fan, shocked the state by signing with the Utes and then-coach Jim Fassel. Mitchell, who was part of Utah’s 1987 signing class, went on to lead the Utes to their first victory over BYU in a decade, in 1988, and then had a long career in the NFL.

Mitchell was the first highly touted recruit from Utah County to cross that barrier from blue to red. Others have since followed.

“There was really no choice when I was there because of the success that BYU had. Utah was kind of boring. It was running football, option football. It wasn’t a great choice for people, unless you wanted to do that,” Mitchell recalled. “Coach Edwards really revolutionized the game and made football exciting and fun and BYU owned it at that time, in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.

“Growing up there, it was fun to watch. There were some great players. When I came around, (Utah) still wasn’t an option. I grew up dreaming of playing at BYU. I was a big BYU fan. In my time, Utah kind of changed its offense. That had some appeal for me and others. But really, even that wasn’t enough. When I went to Utah, we tried to get kids to come from Utah County and a lot of them wouldn’t.”

A couple of years after Mitchell arrived at Utah, Orem High wide receiver Bryan Rowley, ended up as Utah’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns at the end of his career.

Rowley “came my last year at Utah. But there weren’t a lot of guys at that time. It’s because of the programs. The success of what LaVell had established in Provo made it a national program,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to turn against that. Then you have the LDS Church angle. Most kids in Utah County are (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). So there is a sense of loyalty and it goes beyond college and football.

“You get your personal life into it. At that time, there was a sense that it was a bit of an obligation. That played into it. There are recruits today that, no matter what, they’re going to go to BYU. A lot of it is because of that, because of the deep loyalty to that program.”

By the time Whittingham, a former BYU star, became an assistant at Utah in 1994, it was still rare to see a Utah County-grown product making a big impact with the Utes.

Since then things have changed quite a bit.

“It used to be pretty much a fence around Utah County and you couldn’t get in on those guys,” Whittingham said. “Now, we’ve had a lot of success with players from Utah County coming up here and making the transition. If you go back through the years, there’s been so many guys (from Utah County) that have played good football for us.”

From Whittingham’s perspective, twin brothers Kimball and Howard Christianson, both defensive players from Timpview High, were among those that started breaking down that fence around Utah County.

“They made the move. They were guys that typically would have been locks to stay in Provo and play,” Whittingham said. “But they came up here and there’s a lot of guys that have followed suit and followed in their footsteps. There have been a lot of players from down there that have been very successful up here.”

So what changed?

Over the past 25 years, Utah has produced a steady stream of NFL players, has enjoyed stellar seasons and became a member of the Pac-12. But Mitchell believes the Utes’ ability to attract quality talent from Utah County in particular goes beyond that.

More than its Pac-12 membership

“The Pac-12 is a big deal. That’s part of it. But I think it comes down to the fact that there are a lot more quality players. The population has grown so much,” said Mitchell, who is currently the color analyst for Utah football broadcasts. “You’ll hear both Utah and BYU coaches say, ‘That’s not a guy we’re recruiting.’ It’s almost like there are more players, or enough players, to go around for everyone.

“You have to be a certain kind of player to go to BYU. And you have to be a certain kind of player to go to Utah, too. More and more, those players exist all around, even in Utah County. It’s not so ‘Happy Valley’ as it was affectionately called back in the day. It’s really grown and matured a lot.

“Then you have all these other schools coming in — Oregon, Stanford and Washington and Alabama and USC,” he continued. “So the state of Utah has a lot of really good football players, period. I used to broadcast high school football games. I did it for five years. That was the thing that always stood out to me — there’s a lot of well-coached, really good athletes in the state of Utah.”

Among the current Utah County players that have starred at Utah include wide receiver and kick return specialist Britain Covey, another Timpview product.

Covey has earned four All-Pac-12 selections and was a 2015 Freshman All-American. He ranks No. 5 all-time at Utah in career punt returns (63) and fourth in career punt return yards. Covey led the Utes in receiving yards in 2015, 2018 and 2020.

Does Covey see his achievements at Utah having a positive influence on other Utah County recruits?

The Covey factor

“It has for a lot of guys from Timpview. I don’t know that you can prove statistically that I’ve done that. But I think in terms of perception, yes, I have,” Covey said. “It’s more based on the rivalry than it is, ‘Oh, I’m a member of (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), I need to go to BYU.’ I think that notion has kind of died down quite a bit.

“In terms of the rivalry, I’ve shown people that someone like me can have been a BYU fan my whole life and still go to Utah and become a Utah fan, and realize that the right way to go. I think I’ve done that a little bit. I wouldn’t give myself too much credit because there have been lots of people that have done that before me. Isaac Asiata, for example. There have been lots before me that paved the way for me.”

Utah’s current roster is dotted with Utah County natives, including Hayden Erickson (Lehi HS), Jonny Fanaika (Pleasant Grove HS), Devin Kaufusi (Timpview HS), Shintaro Mann (Timpview HS), Karene Reid (Timpview HS), Soa Rosales (Provo HS) and Dylan Slavens (Springville HS).

Utah’s Devin Kaufusi protects the ball after recovering a fumble against Washington State Dec. 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
Utah’s Devin Kaufusi protects the ball after recovering a fumble against Washington State Dec. 19, 2020, in Salt Lake City at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Kaufusi, who began his college career at BYU prior to transferring to Utah, is one of a handful of Utes who grew up in Utah County.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Last season, Lone Peak product Nate Ritchie started for the Utes as a true freshman before departing for a Latter-day Saint mission.

Besides Mitchell and Rowley, there have been other Utah all-time greats from Utah County, such as Paul and Joe Kruger (Timpanogos HS), Chase Hansen (Lone Peak HS) and Issac Asiata (Spanish Fork HS).

Utah County and beyond

Utah recruiting coordinator Freddie Whittingham said Utah County is just one of many counties in the state of Utah that produces elite talent.

“Utah is always going to be our first and highest priority as far as a recruiting area, whether that’s Utah County, Salt Lake County, Davis County, Weber County, whatever county it may be. The players are there,” he said. “We’re going to put a priority on our in-state recruits and prospects and make sure that we feel like we are getting the best players in-state.

“There’s been a long history and tradition of players from in-state coming to the University of Utah and having outstanding careers and helping us win a lot of football games, earning their degree and going on to do big things. Players, wherever they are in Utah, and we happen to have a bunch from Utah County, we’ll seek them out and we’ll find them and we’ll try to get the best ones up here.”

Mitchell is considered a pioneer of sorts for being the first high-profile Utah County recruit to make the jump to Utah.

“For me, it was such a personal decision that went beyond all of that,” he said. “I was super competitive and I wanted us to succeed and do well. It was very frustrating when that wasn’t happening.”

What’s happened since has fulfilled the dreams of those who hoped Utah could become a nationally relevant program.

“As players and coaches, when we were at Utah, we could see the potential. We could see what it’s become,” Mitchell said. “It’s a great campus; it’s a great school. It had the bare bones of a program that you could really build on. Salt Lake is a great metropolitan area. It’s grown and grown and grown.

“To see it today, it’s almost hard to fathom, when I go there and see the facilities, and the expanded stadium, it’s just beautiful. It’s fun to see because I saw how it wasn’t,” he continued. “To see what what we thought it could be come to life, that’s satisfying. It’s fun to be part of that history and see it succeed, no question.”