A lot has happened in the last week regarding the Utah Football coaching staff.
Kalani is gone. That hurts most in recruiting and in team chemistry. He is the coach everyone plays hardest for. But schematically, the defense will survive. Kalani inherited the defense and did a great job adapting it to Pac-12 play. Whitt himself has been a big part of that process, so the hole created by Sitake leaving is less of a technical problem and more of a player-personnel issue. You lessen the blow by bringing in a big-name guy like Ed Orgeron (as long as he is willing to run the Whitt Defense) or promoting from within and giving Morgan Scalley a shot.
Tuiaki is going with him. I think his importance is being understated because his name value isn’t as high as Sitake’s. Let’s not forget that Tuiaki coached the most dominant position group on the squad this year, and that his D-line was the best in all of college football at getting to the QB. Nate Orchard is an NFL prospect who finally came into his own under Tuiaki’s tutelage, but everybody else on the D-line overachieved, 2 standout Freshmen and Shrek himself (Dimick) made huge strides throughout the year. I credit a coach for that many players performing at or near max potential. To plug the hole left by Tuiaki, Utah needs to hire an energetic, Polynesian D-line coach. Steve Fifita (former Ute, current DL coach at Idaho State) and Lewis Powell (former Utah player and GA, Hawaii D-line coach) both played in the defense, know the recruiting landscape and are loyal to Whitt. There are also a couple of Kaufusi’s out there in the coaching world who fit the mold. Don’t be shocked if Whitt hires a guy who hasn’t coached in a while either, like he did with Sharrief Shah.
The latest news is the departure of Dave Christensen to Texas A&M. Not a big loss for the Utes. Players and fellow coaches didn’t love him. Lots of word came out of the program that he was cancerous to team chemistry, and I think I am being kind in describing his playcalling as puzzling and inconsistent at times. The guy was stubborn as a mule and refused to adapt his offense to Travis Wilson’s skillset in many situations. Dave’s offense only looked great against less-athletic defenses.
Now we hear about a meeting between Whitt and Chris Hill, with more speculation and assumptions spinning out of control. I don’t have answers to everything but I can tell you what questions Utah fans need to be asking.
1. Is Kyle hard to work for, or is Chris Hill hard to work for? A lot of fans think Kalani was insulted by the extension offer. I have heard otherwise. Not only that Chris Hill was willing to pay big bucks to keep Kalani around, but that even as far back as two years ago, relationships in the coaches room became strained, and that Whitt was alienating assistants left and right. Sitake and Tuiaki are not the first assistants to jump ship. Chad Kauhaahaa went to Wisconsin with Gary, Jay Hill to Weber to be a HC. The other side of that argument is the possibility that Chris Hill wants to somehow run a top-flight program on a mid-major budget and won’t give great coaches what they are worth. I tend to think the truth is somewhere in the middle. We’ll find out soon.
2. Is Whitt a real candidate for the Michigan job? I ask this question because that’s the only way I see Whitt leaving Utah. He seems like a Utah lifer, and Hill would be a fool to fire him or let him step down because of contract issues. Also, this “Dan Mullen will be the next HC of Utah” is hogwash. Mullen was the HC of a SEC school ranked in the top 4 for the majority of the season. I know he liked Utah, but I gotta believe he’s chasing a National Championship in his next stop and Utah isn’t the best place to get that. It WOULD however be interesting to see what would happen if Whitt left for a job like Michigan and a 4-5 million dollar per year contract. The obvious heir to the throne (Sitake) would be gone, and a buyout of his brand new contract at OSU might be expensive.
3. In-house replacements? Or new faces? Assuming Whitt stays in place, will he further strain relationships on the staff by bringing in coaches who have no ties? Roderick and Erickson both likely have designs on a second shot at OC duties, and Morgan Scalley is almost ready to take over as DC. With Whitt’s guidance, he would be a natural fit.
4. How many players are leaving? This is the most important question. The reason Utah was successful this year was because of players. The major theme of discussion all year long was not “wow, these coaches have finally figured out how to beat Pac-12 teams”; it was about PLAYERS being ready to compete with the speed and size of their Pac-12 counterparts. Booker didn’t have success because of Dave C. Dave C leaned on Booker. The cupboard is full at Utah. Underclassmen with huge upside abound on the roster. Yes, coaching and proper development of that talent is crucial, but ultimately, the personnel on the field is far more important than the men in the booth or the sideline, even the coaches themselves will tell you that.
Whitt faces his toughest test as a coach in replacing his assistants before it starts to kill him on the recruiting front. Utah might be ready to trot out its most talented roster EVER next year. But who will make sure they stay? Who will coach them up? Who will lead them?