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Wednesday, August 15, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.
Utah's resourceful Kyle Whittingham rolls dice with coaching staff
By Bud Withers
Seattle Times staff reporter
Kyle Whittingham of Utah is said to be such a good football coach he can plug just about anybody into an opening and make him a productive player.
Now it appears Whittingham, leading the Utes in their second season in the Pac-12, is taking the same philosophy to his coaching staff.
When renowned offensive guru Norm Chow left Utah to take his first head-coaching gig at Hawaii, Whittingham settled on a promotion for Brian Johnson, who at 25 is one of the youngest offensive coordinators in the nation.
Only four seasons ago, he played quarterback and led the Utes to a 13-0 season and No. 2 ranking.
But that isn't even the most creative move made by Whittingham, who enters his eighth season at Utah. That would be the addition of Sharrieff Shah, 41, whose résumé doesn't include any coaching, but a varied background as a former Utes safety (1990-92), a certified NFLPA agent, a sideline reporter for Utah games and, most recently, a trial attorney specializing in medical malpractice and catastrophic auto accidents.
"Another unique hire," Whittingham said. "I've tried to get Sharrieff on the staff five or six years now. I said, 'This is the last window of opportunity. If you don't take it this time, I'm not going to ask you again.' "
Whittingham's tenure at Utah is exceeded in the Pac-12 only by Mike Riley at Oregon State and Jeff Tedford at California, so this is a guy secure in his ways, including hiring.
As for Shah, he always seemed to have something else going when Whittingham beckoned, including coaching his own sons. But this time it worked, and he is finding it vastly rewarding.
"As a coach, you automatically become so many ballplayers' father figure," he told The Seattle Times recently. "I had a strong father who was truly my best friend. I can appreciate why so many young men kind of gravitate to a strong male figure."
It took a big connection with young athletes to replace the void left by his attorney work, which Shah said was "unbelievably stimulating."
In the end, though, the chance to have an impact on young collegians, he said, is "so much more gratifying than (litigation) that wasn't going to bring back a baby that drowned in a pool."
Meanwhile, Utah's first year in the Pac-12 left many outsiders with this conclusion: Excellent defense, no offense. The Utes led the league in scoring defense (20.2), but were last in passing offense (173.2).
"We expect to be more prolific than we were last year," Whittingham said. "If we're going to win the Pac-12 South, which is our goal, it's got to be more than just great defense."
The Utes have been hit by injuries in fall camp, losing two JC players expected to contribute: defensive tackle Junior Salt and offensive lineman Marc Pouvave.
No team in the league has undergone a more dramatic shift at quarterback. Last year, when starter Jordan Wynn suffered an early season injury to his left shoulder, Jon Hays nursed the offense the rest of the way.
Now, Wynn, who had a 17-10 touchdown-interception ratio in 2010, is back, and the position is inflated by two promising freshmen — 6-foot-6 Travis Wilson and 6-3 Chase Hansen, who took part in spring football.
Getting the ball a lot will be 5-8 John White, who carried 316 times last year for a school-record 1,519 yards.
On defense Utah raised eyebrows. The Utes led in turnover margin (plus-10) and stamped themselves as a physical, relentless group.
"We're as physical a defense as you're going to find," said Whittingham. "Physically on defense, we match up with just about anybody in the country, especially on the line of scrimmage."
Linchpin of that line is 6-4, 320-pound nose tackle Star Lotulelei, who won the Morris Trophy as the Pac-12's best defensive lineman. Then he promptly announced he was returning for his senior year, explaining recently, "I didn't feel I was ready to take the next step. There's a lot of things I need to work on as a football player."
Utah, too, on offense. If the Utes get that side figured out, they could make it uncomfortable for USC in the Pac-12 South and put another notch in the belt of the resourceful Whittingham.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
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