Make no mistake about it, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has always loved a challenge.
That's exactly what he got when it came to the 2021 recruiting cycle and dealing with it throughout the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world.
Utah was coming off signing one of the best classes in program history, finishing with the No. 29 ranked class in the nation. Combine that with back-to-back Pac-12 south division titles and conference championship game appearances, there was a lot of momentum heading into the 2021 class for the Utes.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit the world harder than anyone ever expected and with it came the downfall of recruiting. A recruiting dead period was issued by the NCAA, beginning in late spring and extending all the way into the 2021 calendar year with no official end in sight.
“The real casualties, I guess you could say, the guys to feel sorry for, are the recruits themselves," Whittingham said. "They had to make these decisions without having a chance to go through the recruiting process and take visits to the various campuses and check things out firsthand. ... Those are the guys that have taken the brunt of the downside of the whole thing.”
For the Utes, this was not ideal as the program, typically a slow starter in recruiting, really relies on the interaction and family-like atmosphere that recruits get when they visit the program and spend time with the staff and team. But that was no longer a possibility with the shutdown, forcing Whittingham and his staff to adapt new tactics.
That new way of thinking and recruiting has paid off as the Utes have climbed from a program ranked in the 80's nationally and second-to-last in the Pac-12 when the dead period began to signing a top-30 class and No. 4 in the Pac-12.
“We feel great about our class,” Whittingham said. “We think we’ve put together another outstanding group of young men and we hope to get them signed.”
The 2021 Early Signing Period begins today, and with that we will have a live thread of when all 17 Utah recruits sign their national letters of intent. Read below for recruit analysis regarding each player...
Utah 2021 Recruiting Class
1.) Zereoue Williams
Size: 6'8'', 255 pounds
High School: Mountain Pointe HS
Hometown: Maricopa, Arizona
Offers: Florida State, Tennessee, Arizona State and Oregon State
Analysis: A late commitment to the Utes, Williams originally gave up the sport of football to focus on basketball, where the 6-foot-8, 250 pounder had received an offer from Tubby Smith at High Point University. But he elected to focus on football again with hopes of playing with his brother at Northern Arizona — where he quickly became an elite prospect with massive upside.3
Years spent on the hardwood have in fact made Williams stand out on the football field as an offensive tackle who possesses incredible athleticism. His footwork is some of the best in the class, and his strength and reach can't be taught.
Entering the Utah program, Williams will be considered a massive project. But once he dedicates himself to the intricacies of the position and refines his technique, he's a quintessential Kyle Whittingham recruit who could become an elite blocker and tackle at the college level.
2.) Trey Reynolds
Size: 6'2'', 235 pounds
High School: Queen Creek HS
Hometown: Queen Creek, Arizona
Offers: 22 — Oregon, UCLA, Washington, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State
Analysis: Pulling Reynolds from Arizona is a massive get for the Utes, who are looking to reload on defense after being expected to get hard in the two years prior to Reynolds showing up on campus. It's also a win in getting him from the likes of Pac-12 foes Oregon and Washington, showing that Utah is a place to be.
The more you watch Reynolds' game, the more you'll fall in love with his old-school approach to the game. The kid just loves to play hard and hit people — and with his size already, is capable of stepping in and playing right away.
He's also a lot more athletic than given credit for as he can play in coverage as well, and his three-star ranking is actually a little low for where he projects in the college ranks.
3.) Tevita Fotu
Size: 6'6'', 325 pounds
Recent School: Herriman HS / Snow College
Hometown: Oakland, California
Analysis: The next great Fotu to come through the ranks at Utah may very well be the biggest one in Tevita (David). He's an absolute mauler and after shining at Snow College down south, is more than ready to make an instant impact with the Utes.
He's big and strong, showcases above average athleticism with solid hands and footwork. While his technique still needs to be refined a bit as he tends to play with his pads a little high, the potential is through the rough and he very well could follow in the footsteps of his brother, Leki, who now plays for the Arizona Cardinals.
4.) Ricky Parks
Size: 5'11'', 214 pounds
High School: Gaither HS
Hometown: Tampa, Florida
Offers: 15 — Iowa, Florida State, Penn State and Kentucky among others
Analysis: If fans want a running back who looks like former stars Zack Moss, Joe Williams and Devontae Booker, they won't have to look much further than Parks. Interestingly enough, Moss also hailed from Florida and Utah fans know exactly how successful his career turned out.
This guy is an absolute tank of a running back who is going to lower his shoulder and deliver the boom. He needs to work on his hands out of the backfield and his pass-protection skills, but he has the physical traits to be successful.
Parks will be asked to come in and immediately contribute as Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore announced this past week they were entering the NCAA Transfer Portal
5.) Velltray Jefferson
Size: 6'5'', 235 pounds
High School: Edison HS
Hometown: Fresno, California
Offers: 14 — USC, Arizona State, Tennessee and Washington among others
Analysis: He was a huge pickup for Utah, as the program went into California and plucked out one of the top athletes in the nation — not to mention the fact that he was committed to rival USC at one point.
Jefferson, who played both wide receiver and linebacker at Edison High School in Fresno, Calif., is most likely going to focus on the defensive side of the ball once he steps onto Utah's campus.
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Jefferson already looks the part of a college linebacker. But expect him to take off both physically and mentally once he gets to college due to the fact that he'll be focusing on one position rather than two.
6.) Jonny Fanaika
Size: 6'3'', 245 pounds
High School: Pleasant Grove HS
Hometown: Pleasant Grove, Utah
Offers: 3 — Utah, BYU and Utah State
Analysis: It's safe to say that Fanaika has grown and matured since he first chose to attend Utah out of Pleasant Grove High School in Utah. He left to serve his two-year LDS mission at 200 pounds and is now returns at a rock-solid 245 pounds.
The Utes are light on defensive end recruits this class, and a large part of that is due to the high expectations Fanaika has. A gifted athlete, he should come in and immediately provide solid depth to a defensive end group that could lose both of its starters after this season.
7.) Ethan Calvert
Size: 6'3'', 230 pounds
High School: Oaks Christian HS
Hometown: Westlake Village, California
Offers: 21 — USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon among others
Analysis: This is hands down Utah's biggest win on the 2021 recruiting trail as Calvert was closely linked to local schools USC and UCLA. Not only did the Utes secure one of the top players and linebackers in the nation, they took him away from Pac-12 south division rivals.
Two months ago, the Utes appeared to be longshots to land his services, especially considering USC is attempting to return to national prominence and is close to home, while his oldest brother Bo suits up for the Bruins.
Also, Ethan had yet to visit Utah's campus — while visiting the Trojans and Bruins multiple times over the years. So when he was able to take a trip north in September to see the campus and get a feel for it, that was considered a huge win in Utah's recruiting world and what led to the Utes securing his services.
With two brothers already playing and starting for fellow Pac-12 programs, it's widely believed by analysts that Ethan can be the best of them with a legitimate future on Sundays.
8.) Simote Pepa
Size: 6'3'', 320 pounds
High School: Bingham HS
Hometown: South Jordan, Utah
Offers: 12 — BYU, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington among others
Analysis: Pepa will finally suit up for the Utes and is going to be a massive addition, quite literally, to Utah's defensive line group. A member of the class of 2019, he served an LDS mission for the past two years before now suiting up for the Utes.
A big man in the middle, Pepa has an extremely strong and well built upper body which has allowed him to overpower his opponents. His lower is a little bit smaller so he has struggled with creating a solid base against double teams, but he's athletic and quick enough to beat one-on-one blocks.
Still needing to refine his technique, Pepa will slot into the defensive line group and make an impact right away. Utah is set to lose their two starters after the season, which could open up some immediate playing time
9.) Cole Bishop
Size: 6', 200 pounds
High School: Starrs Mill HS
Hometown: Peachtree City, Georgia
Offers: 17 — Duke, Michigan State, Stanford and Coastal Carolina among others
Analysis: Bishop is more than an intriguing prospect, he possesses the potential to be a star at the next level based on his size, athleticism and approach to the game. He's physical enough at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds to play down in the box as a run-supporting safety — but also athletic enough to defend in space and coverage.
Most impressive by Utah is they it got Bishop to commit to Utah without ever visiting the campus. His trust in defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and Utah's recent track record of sending defensive backs to the NFL was more than enough.
Also, Utah is one of the top programs in the nation at producing NFL talent who were ranked three stars in high school, finding diamonds in the rough. That's very intriguing for a player like Bishop who, as a two-way athlete in high school, will only thrive one he dedicates himself to the safety spot.
10.) Viliami Pouha
Size: 6'3'', 225 pounds
High School: Bingham HS
Hometown: South Jordan, Utah
Offers: 3 — Utah, UNLV and Washington State
Analysis: Viliami has a lot of upside to his physical stature, as he's currently pretty slender throughout his frame, which allows him to thrive athletically. He can easily fill out physically, and with the correct weight should not lose any of that athleticism.
You can tell he's been tutored by his father and the coaches at Bingham because ha already has an array of counter moves and pass-rushing skills against opposing offensive tackles. However, he isn't particularly great at any of them so refining that technique some more will be paramount to his success at the next level.
Viliami has no problem being physical at the line of scrimmage, and shows good awareness that if he isn't going to get into the backfield, to properly set the edge. He can also play with a hand in the ground or standing up, showing off his versatility — but he will have to chose one of the options to focus on more at the collegiate level.
11.) Peter Costelli
Size: 6'3'', 205 pounds
High School: Mission Viejo HS
Hometown: Redondo Beach, California
Offers: 19 — Oregon, Stanford, Michigan State and Indiana among others
Analysis: Blessed with insane dual-threat capabilities, Costelli is actually most comfortable in the pocket as he often delivers the ball precisely and with a big arm as well, having no trouble throwing the deep ball — but he must get more consistent with his anticipation and throwing through tight windows.
His athleticism is off the charts, as he ran anchor for his school's 4x100-meter time, which was completed in 42.29 seconds, the second fastest time in the state. He also has a personal best of 10.82 in the 100-meter, but left more to be desired after his track and field season was canceled this season due to COVID-19.
Costelli is an athletic quarterback with good size and outstanding play speed. He has good feet in the pocket and is a nightmare for defenses as a runner. Although he must continue to smooth over his delivery and increase his mental processing quickness after the snap, he has the potential to become a starting-caliber college quarterback. Costelli fits best in an offense that moves the pocket and allows him to attack the edges on rolls and sprints, while also using him on designed runs and zone-read concepts.
12.) Jonah Elliss
Size: 6'3'', 220 pounds
High School: Moscow HS
Hometown: Moscow, Idaho
Offers: 8 — Air Force, Boise State, Washington State and Louisville among others
Analysis: The addition of Elliss to the Utes keeps alive their family legacy alive in red and white as his father Luther was one of the best defensive tackles in Utah history, being named a first-team All-American as a senior.
While he's deemed an outside linebacker and that's clearly where he's most comfortable, the offensive coaches at Utah have been discussing about him potentially playing tight end. Regardless of where he plays for the Utes, Utah is adding somebody of high character who adds an intriguing blend of athleticism and size that could really pan out once he dedicates himself to a position.
It's most likely that Elliss will stay on the defensive side of the ball in a safety/outside linebacker mold depending on how his body develops over the coming years. He's not insanely athletic, but he's extremely fluid which allows him to move well in the passing game if needed but he must become more explosive if he's to actually thrive in the role. He's tenacious at the point of attack and loves to play physical, but keeps good mind to stay broken down and technical.
13.) Koli Faaiu
Size: 6'4'', 320 pounds
High School: North Creek HS
Hometown: Edmonds, Washington
Offers: 10 — Washington State, Michigan State, Colorado and Hawaii among others
Analysis: Faaiu best projects at either guard or center at the collegiate level, where his strength and athleticism will be very much appreciated and allow him to thrive in pass protection and run blocking.
He shows very good cognizant awareness of his protections and appears to understand the game well. He does good short-area burst and is surprisingly athletic and nimble for his size. As with most high school offensive linemen, he's able to overwhelm his opponents with sheer strength so his technique isn't up to par as of yet.
Once the Utah coaches get their hands on him and can refine/develop that technique and discipline, don't be surprised if Faaiu emerges as a starter at some point during his career.
14.) Isaac Vaha
Size: 6'6'', 235 pounds
High School: Pleasant Grove HS
Hometown: Pleasant Grove, Utah
Offers: 19 — Oregon, UCLA, BYU and Arizona State among others
Analysis: This is a huge pickup for Utah, mainly because it keeps one of the top in-state prospects home. Vaha possesses a massive amount of potential at the tight end position , especially considering he's only been playing football for a few years. He's still figuring out one the specifics of the position and once he puts it altogether, he can be a massive threat on offense.
Blessed with incredible size, athleticism and grace, Vaha hasn't even begun to realize his potential in football considering he's been a basketball player for so long. He's extremely raw to the game of football but he's a natural born athlete and has proven to be a quick learner.
His basketball background makes Vaha and immediate redzone threat on the gridiron, and with more technique, experience and refining of the game, could make him thrive on the football field for the Utes. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has been reinvented the tight end position in Utah's offense, as evidenced by the emergence of Brant Kuithe last season.
15.) Makai Cope
Size: 6'3'', 207 pounds
High School: Culver City HS
Hometown: Culver City, California
Offers: 13 — USC, Michigan, Arizona State and Stanford among others
Analysis: Cope's decision to commit to the Utes doesn't come as a surprise as there have been recent rumblings that his love for Utah was growing. Then there was also his connection with four-star quarterback commit Peter Costelli, as the two have spent some time this fall getting together and throwing the ball.
Cope can stop and start on a dime, and use his long strides to high step last-ditch arm tackles he just created for himself. He covers 10 yards in his first five strides off the line; he’s explosive from zero momentum. No surprise he has a track background.
He’ll be making a big leap in terms of the level of competition at the next level, but he did have success during one-on-ones at various unpadded camps. His skill set and high-point ability are most effective out wide and deeper downfield on 50/50 balls.
16.) Mason Tufaga
Size: 6'2'', 220 pounds
High School: St. Louis HS
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
Offers: 12 — USC, Oregon, Arizona State and Nebraska among others
Analysis: This is a kid who comes from a great high school in producing elite college-level talent, including former Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon. While not the biggest of players right now, Tufaga tests off the charts athletically and is seen as someone who will easily put on good weight at the next level.
He's a game-changer in the middle of the defense and plays physical with a nasty chip on his shoulder. He's more of a downhill type of player, although he does have some coverage skills in the passing. Pairing him with Calvert and Reynolds gives the Utes a sensation nucleus in the middle of the defense for years to come.
17.) Darrien Stewart
Size: 6'2'', 185 pounds
High School: Desert Pines HS
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nevada
Offers: 12 — UCLA, Washington State, San Diego State and Boise State among others
Analysis: Sort of unknown commodity for whatever reason, Stewart full on looks the part of Division I safety, and to be honest he plays the part as well. What makes him special is that he's good on nearly every aspect of the game. He's got the size to man up with tight ends, the physicality to play in the box and make a hit and the athleticism to cover centerfield.
But that's also what makes Stewart just a three-star prospect and not more is that he isn't great in any one thing. He can matchup with receivers but lacks ideal cover skills, and while his athleticism is good, his hips are a little tight and he struggles coming out of breaks immediately.
His best trait is the physical and reckless abandonment he plays with, a style of play that has become very familiar with the Utah defense. Stewart loves to hit and has no problem challenging anyone, regardless of size. Once he gets into a college program, I fully expect him to shine after a year or two of refining his technique and growing more as an athlete.
18.) Elisha Lloyd
Size: 5'10'', 175 pounds
High School: Mission Hills HS
Hometown: San Marcos, California
Offers: 19 — Washington State, Boise State, Boston College and Kansas State among others
Analysis: Once again, this another one of those 'diamond in the rough' finds by Whittingham and his staff — and picking him off from another Pac-12 school is just double the win. Even after Lloyd committed to Washington State, coach Shah and Utah stayed hard after him and it proved to be the difference.
Lloyd possesses blazing speed (might be the fastest player on the West Coast) and solid technique. Is athleticism is off the charts as it helps him do a phenomenal job of staying patient in coverage, knowing he can because he has the speed to make up for it.
When you combine everything that Lloyd already possesses with Utah's player-development and there's no reason to believe that he won't turn into a high-level player with the Utes.
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