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Utah digs deep to prepare for new-look Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he and his staff have studied film from six or seven other programs to prepare for the season opener against Michigan.

The Wolverines, under new coach Jim Harbaugh, will face the Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a Thursday primetime game. Because Harbaugh and his staff — and presumably his starting quarterback, a transfer from Iowa — are new, Whittingham said they had to dig deeper in terms of preparation.

For instance, the Utes have studied film of Florida’s defense, where current Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin previously worked and also Iowa film to study graduate-transfer quarterback Jake Rudock. Whittingham, who led the Utes to a 26-10 victory at Michigan last season, said they might see two Michigan quarterbacks, including junior Shane Morris, in the opener.

“That’s one of those six or seven schools, programs, teams we’ve taken a look at,” Whittingham, speaking at his news conference Monday in Salt Lake City, said, referring to Iowa film. “(Rudock’s) a good quarterback, he does a lot of good things. We’re anticipating we may see them both. From what you hear, it looks like (Rudock) may be the lead guy to be the starter, but you never know that for sure. There’s not a big scheme adjustment. It’s not like they’re radically different from each other, so it doesn’t really have a huge bearing on the game which one starts, at least the preparation for the game.”

Harbaugh and his team had no contact with media for a three-week period, so very little information slipped out of preseason camp, perhaps as a catch-Utah-off-guard tactic.

Whittingham shrugged off the lack of information.

“You can release a depth chart and it can be inaccurate,” he said. “We don’t put any stock in a depth chart, really, and once the season starts, you don’t even glance at it, you look at the film see who’s playing, who’s doing what. There’s so many unknowns, whether they’re talking to the media or not. We have their spring game (film) from Michigan which gives us a little bit of an idea what we may expect, but I don’t know going completely silent has a huge impact. But any little thing helps, and if they felt that is a benefit just like us and injuries — we just feel like we’re going to keep that in-house and why tip your opponent if you don’t have to?”

When Harbaugh was hired by Michigan after he spent the last four seasons coaching the San Francisco 49ers, pretty much everyone took notice. They hype machine heading into Thursday’s opener hasn’t slowed, either.

During his news conference, Whittingham was asked his reaction when Harbaugh was hired.

“He’ll do a great job,” Whittingham said. “He’s a heck of a coach. He’s a proven commodity. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been. He knows how to get it done. I thought it was a great hire for them.”

There is a common thread in every team Harbaugh has coached, Whittingham said. His teams play tough, with a “hard-nosed” power run game, multiple tight ends and a fullback.

“In this day and age most universities don’t recruit a fullback, and they’ve got several on their roster,” he said, adding his defense sees less and less pro-style each year.

While Utah’s defense and special teams have stood out — the Utes released their depth chart early Monday and Travis Wilson will be the starting quarterback — defense should be Michigan’s strength, as well.

Safety Jabrill Peppers is a known commodity, Whittingham said, although he played little last year because of injuries, and the Utes’ offensive staff made sure to study Durkin’s Florida defense.

“If you watched Florida all last year, that’s going to be a big influence on what they do, we feel this year, which was mixing the odd and even front, instead of two high safeties, single high safety, pressure in the red zone, zero blitzes in the red zone, things that really aren’t out of the ordinary, but we’ve been putting stock in what Florida did last year and of course watching Michigan tape for personnel matchups.”

Whittingham said he wasn’t entirely surprised three years ago when he learned Michigan would be traveling to Utah for this game. After all, he said, since joining the Pac-12 the program has had plenty of interest from what he called big-brand schools.

“I don’t think it surprised me, but it was something we certainly couldn’t pass up, the opportunity to do that,” he said of this game.

Still, the Utes are not making this game bigger than any other on their schedule.

“Every game is a big game in this conference and with this schedule,” Whittingham said. “We feel our guys are very battle-tested and have been exposed to enough big-time atmospheres and hostile crowds. We might have the single biggest crowd in Rice-Eccles Stadium. We’re hoping for that so our guys will feed off that. Should be a big advantage for us.

“(But there’s) no change as far as preparation. One thing it does, it gets your players’ attention right away. We’ve been pointing to this game and talking about it for months and months. It’s obviously a higher-profile game than some of our other openers.”