Growing into a power: Utah's transformation from BCS buster to legit Pac-12 contender
SALT LAKE CITY—Growing up in Australia, Tom Hackett didn't know anything about American college conferences. He'd heard of a few schools, USC and Stanford among them, but didn't know how those schools organized themselves for athletic purposes. After choosing in 2012 to punt for Utah, the future Ray Guy Award winner quickly learned the difference between the conference the Utes had joined the year before and the one they left behind.
All it took was a look at the 2012 schedule. "Bloody hell," Hackett said. "Those are some big schools." And once he started playing against those schools, all it took was a look at his new teammates relative to their opponents. "When you go play USC, UCLA, Oregon, whoever it may be, you're probably not going to win that game."
Now a senior, Hackett sees something different when he looks at the players in front of him and the ones on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Sure, he was terrified at Oregon on Sept. 26, when a snap for a fake punt sailed above his head. But after he speared the ball one-handed—Odell Beckham Jr.-style—Hackett looked ahead and saw a wall of blockers just as big and athletic as the Ducks trying to tackle him. "My shield, the three guys in front of me, they're way up there. I had to get on my horse," Hackett said. "So I just ran—probably the fastest I've ever run in my whole entire life. Four point nine six was my 40 [time] over the summer, but it felt faster than that."
Utah co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick noticed the same thing as Hackett. One of the last holdovers from head coach Kyle Whittingham's first staff after taking over as head coach in 2005, Roderick watched as the Utes went from BCS busters to a full-fledged Power Five program. Like a parent who doesn't notice how much his children have grown until a friend who sees them less frequently points it out, Roderick hadn't quite grasped the totality of Utah's roster makeover until a week earlier at Fresno State. Bulldogs offensive coordinator Dave Schramm, a Utah assistant from '05 to '11, marveled during pregame warmups. "That's not the Utah team that I coached," Roderick remembered Schramm saying. A few days after the Utes pummeled Oregon 62–20 at Autzen Stadium, Roderick had to agree. "Our players look like their players," he said. "Maybe a few years ago, most of our guys were looking up a couple inches at the other team."
Now that the fifth-ranked Utes (4–0) look like a Pac-12 title contender and have proven they can play a game like one, the question is whether they can play consistently enough to actually win the Pac-12. Will they have the depth to withstand a march of eight conference games in eight weeks—nine in nine weeks if Utah can win the Pac-12 South and advance to the conference title game—that begins with Saturday's visit from No. 23 Cal (5–0)? "We feel like we're more equipped now than any time since we joined the league to compete in this conference," Whittingham said. "We're still not at the point we need to be depth-wise at every position. We still need to get more skilled and more athletic."
Those last two sentences? They have little to do with Utah's transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. Every coach utters some version of them. USC's Steve Sarkisian, UCLA's Jim Mora, Stanford's David Shaw and Oregon's Mark Helfrich probably feel exactly the same way. The difference is their programs have had rosters full of power-conference players for longer. This is the first year for Utah in which every player on the roster signed after the Utes were invited in June 2010 to help the Pac-10 become the Pac-12.
Utah's growing pains were obvious. After a surprisingly strong debut season in the Pac-12 (8–5 overall and 4–5 in league play), reality struck in 2012. The team stumbled to 5–7 (3–6 Pac-12). In '13, the Utes posted the same overall record but one fewer conference win. The scary part for Utah was the fact that its league record had slipped in a year when the team had demonstrably improved. Buoyed by the new television deal that came with conference expansion, other Pac-12 schools had used the largesse to hire better coaches, who in turn recruited and developed better players. "We had to make maybe two jumps," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said. "We had to jump where we thought they were. Then we had to jump a little further."
That second jump took place last year, when the Utes beat USC, UCLA and Stanford and returned to bowl eligibility. Utah's athletic department had dipped into debt spending $32 million on a new football facility (opened in 2013) that had the same luxurious lockers, state-of-the-art weight room, loaded training table and barber chair* that other top Pac-12 programs boasted. (Last week, the Utes opened a palatial practice complex for their men's and women's basketball teams.) Hill said it was critical that the Utes were not perceived as "poor little Utah," so he convinced then-university president Michael Young, shortly after the Pac-12 invitation, to allow the department to take on some debt—which could steadily be paid down when the influx of Pac-12 cash arrived—so the Utes could get competitive quickly. "I told our president, 'We've got to beat Oregon. You don't have to beat Stanford's chemistry department,'" Hill said. By the end of last season, the football Utes appeared to have everything they needed to be competitive in the Pac-12.
*The Utes actually have two barber chairs: a simple one and a fancy, chrome-accented one. They originally ordered the simple one. "That wasn't a Pac-12 chair," football operations director Jeff Rudy joked.
Then, a day after Christmas and six days after Utah's 45–10 win over Colorado State in the Las Vegas Bowl, a story broke in the Salt Lake Tribune detailing a "growing rift" between Whittingham and Hill. On Dec. 23, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuiaki had left to take the same jobs at Oregon State. On Dec. 25, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen had bolted for Texas A&M—to be the Aggies offensive line coach. The story paraphrased a source as saying that "Hill's failure to lock up Sitake made Whittingham feel that Hill was trying to sabotage his program." The story suggested Whittingham might be looking for another job.
Even without the possibility of Whittingham leaving, the staff upheaval could have torpedoed the program. Utah's defense had led the nation with 55 sacks in 2014, and Christensen's exit meant that if Whittingham brought in a new coordinator from the outside, the Utes would enter this fall using their fourth offensive scheme in four years. To defend himself, Hill took the unusual step of going public with the final amount he offered Sitake before Sitake decamped for Corvallis.
That statement broke three days of uncomfortable silence from the Utes athletic department. A similar statement from Whittingham was expected, but he didn't address the situation publicly for more than a week. On Jan. 7, Whittingham told CBS Sports Radio that he would be back. "There's been a little too much drama," Whittingham told host Damon Amendolara.
Asked last week about the fallout from the situation, Whittingham said the bumps have been smoothed. "Everything has settled down," he said. "It's fine. Everyone is doing their jobs." Asked if winning had anything to do with that, Whittingham laughed. "It's always better when you're winning. My wife treats me better." For his part, Hill is happy with the program, but unhappy there was so much drama during the holidays. "It just kind of snowballed for no reason," he said.
Out of that uncertain time Whittingham made two choices that helped stabilize the program. On defense, he talked former Utah assistant John Pease out of retirement to be the Utes' new coordinator. Whittingham had initially contacted Pease to bounce the names of potential candidates off the Utah alumnus and longtime NFL assistant. After about three or four conversations, Whittingham realized Pease might be interested in doing the job himself. The scheme, which is Whittingham's first and foremost, would not change, and Whittingham had a coordinator he could trust.
While deciding what to do with the offense, Whittingham met with every remaining assistant and asked each man to describe his vision for the unit. Since Andy Ludwig left following the 2008 season, six different people had held the title of offensive coordinator or co-offensive coordinator for the Utes. If Whittingham went outside the program for this hire, senior quarterback Travis Wilson would likely have found himself running his fourth offense in as many years. So, Whittingham was intrigued during those January meetings when two current offensive assistants said basically the same thing: For the sake of the players, the most important thing the Utes could do was keep the system that Christensen ran.
Roderick and offensive line coach Jim Harding hadn't coordinated their answers. Roderick had held the position once before (in 2010, with Schramm) and had gotten demoted after a season. Harding had come in with Christensen and now was in the awkward position of staying behind after the man who brought him there had departed. But both men considered it critical to finally allow the Utes' offense to build upon a knowledge base rather than rip up everything and start anew. Whittingham did not tip his hand about his decision. Instead, two days before National Signing Day, he walked down the hallway that connects the offensive coaches' offices. Whittingham walked through each door and informed each coach of his choice. Roderick and Harding would share the job.
This thrilled the players, who dreaded the thought of learning another scheme. It also thrilled the coaches, who either would have gotten fired or been forced to learn another offense to teach the players. This spring, instead of installing yet another new system, Harding worked with his offensive linemen on more advanced concepts. Instead of focusing only on the front seven, linemen would also examine safety rotation in an effort to help determine where pressure might originate. "Who is the key to the castle?" Harding would ask his players. "Who is tipping the blitz? We've got to find it."
By the time the season began, the linemen understood the offense so well that Harding's criticisms were less about missed assignments and more about fine-tuning technique issues. Against Oregon, the line only slid the protection incorrectly on one play. "You're not trying to learn the material," left guard Isaac Asiata said. "You're learning the technique and the mechanics of each play. You're learning the big picture. … Now, all [Harding] can do is nitpick. You put your head here. You put your hand here."
Harding is delighted to only nitpick, and quarterbacks coach Roderick is happy Wilson has a chance to play in an offense for a second season. The 6' 7", 233-pounder can finally play instinctively, which allows him to access more of his considerable skill set. While senior tailback Devontae Booker is the offense's star, Wilson is the X-factor. Against the Ducks, Wilson completed 18 of 30 passes for 227 yards with four touchdowns. He carried six times for 100 yards with a score, outrushing even Booker (98 yards). Wilson took no sacks because his understanding of the offense allows him to get the ball out faster. So, even on that play when the line slid the protection the wrong direction, Wilson operated quickly enough to avoid the pass rush.
In early 2014 the idea of Wilson leading the Utes to a win in Eugene this season would have seemed doubtful. In November of '13, Wilson suffered a concussion. While treating that injury, doctors discovered a previously undiagnosed injury to an intracranial artery. Wilson would have to wait for a three-month check-up before he would learn his football fate. During those three months, Wilson wrestled with a question. What else am I going to do? "If this is over, I'm just a normal student," Wilson said. "It was definitely a weird thought, and definitely scary." Wilson received positive news at the three-month mark—the arterial injury hadn't worsened—and then was cleared to play after another check-up three months later.
He won the starting job in 2014, but was benched against UCLA and had to watch as Kendal Thompson led the Utes to a 30–28 win. Thompson took over the starting job but was lost for the season with a knee injury two games later against Oregon. Wilson returned to the starting lineup and never left. "I definitely feel like things have calmed down a little bit," Wilson said. "The things I've gone through in my career have helped me grow and mature. Everything is set for me to succeed."
And because Wilson has endured so many highs and lows in his time at Utah, Roderick believes the senior can help the younger Utes understand that the win at Oregon was only one game. Heartbreak could be around the corner if Utah players get too cocky, and Wilson and his fellow veterans should have no trouble delivering that message. "We have a lot of guys who were here a couple years ago when we were taking our lumps," Roderick said. "Travis and [senior receiver] Kenneth Scott and [senior linebacker] Jared Norris, a lot of those guys were starters two years ago when we won five games. They remember the lean times. They remember when we went to Autzen and we just couldn't match up. I think those guys are good enough leaders that they're not going to let this team lose focus."
Asiata remembers, too. The fourth-year junior played the NCAA Football video game growing up in Spanish Fork, Utah, and he and his friends always played as USC, UCLA or Oregon. "Everybody's just in awe of those teams," he said. When Asiata got to campus, the awe remained. Over the years, that feeling has vanished. "It went from the awe factor of these big-name schools to just another team we have to beat," Asiata said.
The Utes no longer have to look up at the rest of the Pac-12. They aren't the new guys anymore. They aren't "poor little Utah." The Utes are the ones who humbled Oregon in a way no one else had since 2003. They know they have to string together more wins to truly contend in their new conference home, but they'll never again stand in awe of a conference rival. "When I first got here, it was unbelievable. I couldn't believe I was on the same field with those guys," Asiata said. "We're those guys now."