The USC head coaching search doesn’t have to look very far this week with Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham bringing his No. 3 ranked Utes to town Saturday.
Whittingham said Tuesday that he “would not speculate on speculation” and was focused on beating USC Saturday. How Utah plays against USC may make all of the difference to Trojan fans.
Rarely has one school hired a head coach from another school it has defeated in the same calendar year. A good showing by Utah Saturday in the Coliseum will have Trojan fans clamoring for Whittingham’s hire.
Whittingham is 91-43 at Utah and 27-23 since joining the Pac-12. Specifically against USC the last four years, he is 1-3. Whittingham was a defensive coordinator at Utah for 10 seasons under Ron McBride and Urban Meyer before taking over as a head coach in 2004. Whittingham actually co-head coached the Utes’ win over Pitt that year in the Fiesta Bowl.
Whittingham has coached safeties, defensive line and linebackers while at Utah. Whittingham played linebacker at BYU and USFL with a brief stint with the Los Angeles Rams as a member of the 1987 replacement squad.
Whittingham has the disposition of a linebacker. Quiet, almost stoic in his coaching approach, he has a tough, no-nonsense nature about him. There are no flowery, superfluous quotes from Whittingham floating around on the Internet about life and how it extends to the football field.
“We’ve talked about David and Goliath going at it before, this ain’t no more David and Goliath. This is two giants going at it. Lets get it done!” — Kyle Whittingham before a 62-20 win over Oregon
Whittingham, 55-years-old, has a blue-collar mentality. His calm, quiet demeanor in front of the cameras and microphones gives way to a fiery vocal leader in the locker room.
The Ute football team has suffered no significant off field issues in his tenure, which reflects on the type of program Whittingham runs. But it also speaks to the market he is in and the lack of scrutiny placed upon his football program as well.
The spotlight on USC football is seven days a week, 365 days a year. And while Whittingham has never dealt with the distractions that attempt to penetrate the inner-circle of the USC football team, he would not be the cause of those distractions either.
USC doesn't need Hollywood with this hire, it needs a strong, smart winner who over-performs.
USCFootball.com Columnist and Beat Writer Dan Weber on Whittingham:
“Personality wise, he reminds you of John McKay. Just one example: a couple of years back when Utah didn't have a special teams coach the way their staffing worked out, Whittingham just said he'd do it himself. Result: Utah has had the nation's best special teams the last couple of years."
Whittinhgam has a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology and a masters in professional leadership.
Whittingham’s father, Fred, also coached at Utah as a defensive coordinator before handing the reigns over to Kyle at age 35. Whittingham’s coaching ties are more or less centric to Utah, BYU and Utah State. In fact, it seems like every year or two Utah has a new offensive or defensive coordinator from the Mountain Region.
This ties into why Whittingham would likely accept a job offer from USC. Brian Johnson, Norm Chow and Dan Christensen were all offensive coordinators at Utah in recent years, but left for bigger jobs and more money. Johnson as a quarterbacks coach to Mississippi State, Chow to Hawaii as a head coach and Christensen to Texas A&M as a coordinator. Whittingham also lost defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake to Oregon State this past off season after a publicized contract dispute.
Whittingham began going to a co-coordinator system in order to keep continuity within the Utah offense. At the moment, Utah has implemented a run-spread offense similar to what USC uses. That is, 90-percent shotgun formations with occasional runs and play action out of the pistol formation.
Utah will use an in-line tight end with an H-back in many formations, varying its 12 personnel packages with two tight ends or an in-line tight end with a flexed receiver as a wing. Outside the quarterback position, the Trojans current starters on offense would fit into Utah’s current scheme seamlessly.
Utah scored 62 points on Oregon in Eugene earlier this season with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Utes have a three-headed monster game planning with co-coordinators Jim Harding, Aaron Roderick and assistant head coach Dennis Erickson. Unlike USC, Utah will run quarterback Travis Wilson by design out of the shotgun.
Wilson has 279-yards rushing for three scores on 45 carries. In each of his last four seasons Whittingham has had a pocket-passing quarterback that can run the ball. On paper, Utah’s scheme would fit Trojans freshman quarterback Sam Darnold more than USC redshirt sophomore Max Browne. Coincidentally, Wilson hails from San Clemente High School, the alma mater of Darnold.
This season, the Utes have outscored their opponents 52-22 and 61-35 in the third and fourth quarters of games. That is with a schedule that includes Michigan, Oregon, Cal and Arizona State. USC, with two cakewalk blow outs to start the season, are outscoring opponents 42-33 in the third quarter and being outscored 36-41 in the fourth quarter.
Defensively, Utah has run a 4-3 front with various under alignment wrinkles. Whittigham uses three standard linebackers in its base defense, although similar to a hybrid 3-4 front, the Utes identify four positions as linebackers in their defense. Former defensive coordinator Gary Anderson, now head coach at Oregon State, labeled his middle linebacker a MAC, his weak side linebacker a Rover, his strong side linebacker a STUD and his LEO or rush end as an open end.
Utah’s open end will often play in a two point stance as a defensive lineman and is the most athletic of the front four. Earning the moniker, Sack Lake City, Whittingham’s defenses are tough and opportunistic. It’s not a defense that blitzes every down like Arizona State. Utah’s pass rush is often sourced to an attacking, brutish defensive line.
This is where Whittingham is getting more from less. Utah has seven former defensive linemen playing on NFL rosters and none of which were rated higher than a three-star out of high school. Playing a 4-3 front, USC would move defensive ends like Noah Jefferson to the three-technique defensive tackle position. Players like Rasheem Green and Christian Rector would likely play base end, or strong side defensive end in this system.
Whittingham has been recruiting much of the same territory as USC for the past decade. Whittingham is not a flashy recruiter, and Utah has built its program on players often picked over by USC, UCLA and even Cal. The Utes do occasionally dip into Florida and Texas for recruits. Whittingham currently holds four commitments from prospects in the Sunshine State.
Whittingham’s recruiting classes have always had a heavy representation of Polynesian players. Depending on the make up of his staff, he would undoubtedly want to continue to cherry pick Utah and hit Hawaii on the recruiting trail in addition to signing the best local Polynesian talent in California. Everyone wants to recruit the Southeast for good interior defensive linemen, but Whittingham has been able to field some great defensive fronts recruiting the Western Region.
The junior college ranks are where Whittingham may have to adjust his recruiting tendencies. Of Utah’s current 24 commits, seven of those players come from junior colleges. That includes two defensive tackles. Getting junior college players enrolled academically has always been a challenge at USC, so while Whittingham may put more emphasis on recruiting the juco ranks, it may prove futile.
Whittingham will earn $2.6 million in 2015, with automatic $100,000 increases annually through 2018. With USC not having to pay Steve Sarkisian the remainder of his contract, USC should not have much trouble paying Whittingham's buyout from Utah.
The biggest question revolving around this candidate is "fit." Whittingham played at BYU and has coached at Utah almost his entire career. Living in Los Angeles in itself would be a change, but the type of players he would coach would also present different challenges than he is accustomed to. As the NCAA said, USC is a high profile school with high profile players, and Whittingham previously turned down an offer to become the head coach at Tennessee in 2010.
Whittingham would bring a different narrative to the USC locker room, but will it command the respect of the NFL Draft picks in waiting that litter the Trojans roster? We know Whittingham, who is married into Su'a Cravens' family, has reportedly said that if he had USC's players, he'd never lose.
But that talent is a double-edged sword. For every Juju Smith-Schuster, there is a five-star that wants the royal treatment his freshman year at USC. Whittingham has a system built for the overachiever, but USC is clearly underachieving. Will Whittingham be able to sniff out the five-star head cases of each recruiting cycle, or will he be seduced by the temptation to simply out-talent his competition?
Having said that, recruiting at USC will not be the challenge. Developing that high profile talent with a buy-in philoshopy that both inspires and relates will be what faces Whittingham down at USC. Whittingham has an 8-1 bowl record despite his assistant coaches being poached by other programs each January.
That suggests two things. One, Whittingham has done an excellent job cutting through coaching turnover with a single narrative his players believe in. Two, Whittingham's teams are improving with more practice time, thus more coaching. Being able to finally hire top assistants and keep them may be be the hidden variable that allows Whittingham to excel beyond expectations.