Pipeline to Las Vegas talent-laden for Utah

Utah, the original Bowl Championship Series buster, was more than just a football team in 2004.

The high-scoring, trick-play Utes were an event.

That season, the Urban Meyer-coached team went 12-0 with a Fiesta Bowl romp over Pittsburgh and started a movement that saw schools throughout the country adopt the spread offense.

DeVonte Christopher was home in Las Vegas watching and became a fan.

“I started to get a great feel for them in ’04 when they went to the Fiesta Bowl, and I wanted to be a part of a great tradition,” Christopher said.

Christopher is also part of another tradition. He is one of many players from Southern Nevada who decided to play football at Utah rather than at UNLV.

The Rebels (0-1) visit No. 20 Utah (1-0) at 1 p.m. PDT Saturday in the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams.

There are a mix of reasons why so many have left Las Vegas for the Wasatch Range, but the common theme often comes down to the Utes showing a serious and sustained interest in valley players while recruiting attention from UNLV is too little or too late.

“I thought UNLV would be one of the first schools to recruit me,” Christopher said. “They made a (scholarship) offer after other offers had come to me.

“I can honestly say maybe me and a few other players from Vegas could’ve gone there. It’s crazy when they don’t recruit you.”

The Rebels, then coached by Mike Sanford, offered Christopher a scholarship as an “athlete,” which usually means a glorified wide receiver position. But he insisted on playing quarterback, his position at Canyon Springs High School, where in 2007 he was named the Review-Journal and Nevada Gatorade player of the year.

He is now a receiver at Utah and was the conference offensive player of the week after catching eight passes for 155 yards and a touchdown in last week’s
27-24 overtime victory over Pitt.

Sanford landed his share of local players when he was at UNLV but was criticized for not being more aggressive. Some locals who went on to play elsewhere have said they didn’t feel wanted by their hometown school.

First-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck has worked hard to change that perception, signing eight local players this year in his first recruiting class.

The work has begun to keep the talent in town in his second class, as well.

“We’re only a week into it, but they’re at least taking our phone calls still,” Hauck said.

Although UNLV and Utah will no longer compete in the same conference once Utah leaves the Mountain West for what will be called the Pac-12, they figure to continue going head to head when it comes to recruiting players from Las Vegas.

“There’s a lot of talent in the city of Las Vegas, and we’ve had good success with players we’ve gotten out of there,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. “So we see no reason not to recruit there and not make it one of our primary areas.”

In addition to Christopher, Utah’s roster includes running back Eddie Wide of Cimarron-Memorial, offensive linemen Po’u Palelei from Bishop Gorman and Jeremiah Tofaeno from Cheyenne.

Las Vegans are not only signed by the Utes, they often make big impacts. Wide, for example, rushed for 1,069 yards and 12 touchdowns last season.

It’s not a new trend.

Defensive back Arnold Parker (Cimarron) started for Utah from 2000 to 2003, and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (Valley) was an all-conference selection last season and was drafted in the fifth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Most guys from Vegas really want to try to leave home and have a new experience,” Wide said.

Hauck and his staff will do what they can to keep more from leaving.

“I keep saying it, we want the local guys to stay here,” Hauck said. “We can’t chain them to the light post out front even though we’d like to. But we’re going to present a strong case for guys to stay here, and we hope they will.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at
manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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