Kyle Whittingham has personified Utah football for the better part of 20 years. He began as the defensive line coach there in 1994 and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1995 where he spent the next nine seasons at that position. He became the Utes head coach in 2005 after Urban Meyer left for the University of Florida.
He led his 2008 team to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans where they beat the Alabama Crimson Tide 31-17, a year later he turned down an SEC head coaching job at Tennessee while the team was still in the Mountain West, a non power five conference.
Whittingham, like Arizona State head coach Todd Graham, has turned the Utes into a "defense first" program. Perhaps this was exemplified best last season when the Utes held the Sun Devils, an offensive juggernaut,to just 20 points. Because of this mindset, Graham believes he and Whittingham have a lot in common.
"I'm a defensive guy at heart," Graham said Thursday after practice. "What I mean is that he has a lot of similarity to me because most of the head coaches are offensive minded guys."
Graham also pointed to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Alabama coach Nick Saban as similar defensive minds, but countered it saying that Gus Malzahn at Auburn is one of his best friends but an offensive minded head coach. Graham also commented on the similarities of Utah and Arizona State because of the "defense first" mindset he and Whittingham bring to the table.
"I don't know Kyle that well, I just have watched him, I've watched how his players play," Graham said. "You've got a program, just like our program, first thing I said when I walked in here ‘We're going to play defense' and that wasn't lip service. We've had a major focus to do that and that's what I see in their program."
The similarities are striking when looking at the statistics. Arizona State is No. 27 in total defense in the country this season and Utah isn't far behind at No. 36. The same can be said for stopping teams on fourth down when digging in and getting a stop can matter the most. The Sun Devils have stopped opponents 83 percent of the time this season, tied for No. 18 in the country and Utah is just 10 spots behind at No. 28. That's also good enough for first and second in the Pac-12 respectively
"They take pride, you look and see and they get better every day, they're tough defensively," Graham said. " They do a heck of a job on special teams as well. They've just got a kind of blue color mentality that's what I see on film and I think our teams are similar in that regard and people look at our program and see the same thing."
Feeling for Dres Anderson
Wednesday the Utah football program announced that senior wide receiver Dres Anderson would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. This won't change how the Sun Devils operate on defense according to Graham.
"They've got about three or four really good wide receivers," Graham said. "If you ask me what the strength of their offense is? Hands down its (Devontae) Booker and their offensive line, they believe in him and want to run the ball, but skill wise it's the receivers."
It didn't, however, stop Graham for feeling sorry for Anderson. His career at Utah is now probably over. While Anderson wasn't having the season that he did last year, the Utes are still losing a threat in the receiving game. Junior Kenneth Scott and senior Kaelin Clay will both step up in replacement for Utah.
"I really hate that for Dres Anderson, I mean wow, he is a dynamic, explosive receiver and you hate to see that with a kid like that," Graham said. "He was a warrior and a guy who really impressed me last year. I was always really impressed with the heart and the grit that he played with. My heart goes out to him."
- Ezekiel Bishop and Christian Westerman remained in green no-contact jerseys and didn't practice. Graham said after practice he expects Stephon McCray to get the start at left guard
- First team defense- Linemen: Marcus Hardison- Jaxon Hood-Mo Latu-Demetrius Cherry. Linebackers: Laiu Moeakiola (SPUR)- Salamo Fiso (SAM)-Antonio Longino (WILL) Corners: Kweishi Brown, Lloyd Carrington Safeties: Jordan Simone, Damarious Randall