CULVER CITY, Calif. — Trevor Reilly and Jake Murphy haven’t been silenced by Utah’s first losing football season since 2002. They’re not keeping quiet about the 5-7 campaign that brought an end to the program’s nine-year bowl run. Same goes for the back-to-back sub-.500 conference records that have accompanied membership in the Pac-12.
Reilly and Murphy, who represented Utah at Friday’s Pac-12 media day at the Sony Pictures Studios, are speaking up as team leaders.
“Absolutely. You can’t always lead by example. You need someone to step up and talk,” said Reilly, a senior defensive end/linebacker. “It’s not just me. There’s going to be a few of us that are going to have to do that this year.”
And that’s just fine with Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. He insists a team can never have too much vocal leadership.
“That’s always a positive when the players take control of things,” said Whittingham. “This is their football team. Bottom line: This is their team and they’ve got to make sure they take pride in that.”
Whittingham noted that he’s never been part of a great team that didn’t have strong leadership from within. The onus for that, he continued, is really on the juniors and seniors.
“Jake and Trevor are two of the most prominent players and personalities on the team and they’ve got to shoulder a lot of that responsibility,” Whittingham said.
It’s a role both players have taken in the offseason and plan to continue filling.
“Not that people were negative last year, but at times we lacked vocal leadership in crucial situations,” said Murphy, a junior tight end. “And I think that’s something that we’ve got to be able to bring to the table — whether it’s in the game or workouts or whatever, just be there when it’s a hard time or a clutch situation.”
The biggest thing, Murphy explained, is being a leader when it’s a hard time to be a leader — staying positive when you’re losing and things like that.
Not winning doesn’t sit well.
“It stinks,” Reilly said. “I mean, no one likes to be known as a loser.”
Despite being picked to finish fifth in the South Division in this year’s preseason media poll, Reilly expressed confidence that the Utes could finish on top.
“We expect to win every game and we expect to win the South,” he said. “That’s what we want to do.”
Even so, Reilly acknowledges that football is an unpredictable sport. To combat that, he has a blueprint for success and is sharing it with his teammates.
“Personal accountability for every position. One thing I always talk about is win your personal battle and things will take care of itself,” Reilly explained. “If everyone wins their personal battle, we’ll win the football game. So take responsibility during the week. Watch your film; get in the weight room; go to rehab; and when game time comes win that battle and then we’re going to win.”
The approach, coupled with what Murphy called “a little bit of a chip on our shoulders” because of last season, paid dividends in summer conditioning.
Reilly credits strength and conditioning director Doug Elisaia for helping get everyone bigger, stronger and faster.
Now comes the season. Camp opens Aug. 5 and the season opens Aug. 29 at home against Utah State. The latter is eagerly anticipated because the Utes haven’t played a game since defeating Colorado 42-35 on Nov. 23 — 2012 was the first campaign in a decade that didn’t end with a bowl appearance.
“It was a rough one,” Murphy said of the offseason. “A rough one for sure.”
In two seasons of conference play in the Pac-12, Utah is 7-11. The record includes five setbacks of 10 points or less, including three last season — USC (38-28), UCLA (21-14) and Arizona (34-24).
“A lot of those games we were in them. We’re in those games and we feel like we can win those games,” Murphy said. “We just need to close those games and get that win. It’s definitely motivating.”
Another component is also in play.
“We’re determined to get this thing right and the biggest component to achieving that is through recruiting,” said Whittingham, who estimates that three-quarters of the players who signed with Utah over the past two years did so because of the school's Pac-12 affiliation. “... We feel like our recruiting has been ramped up and we’re hoping to see that manifest in the upcoming years.”
While noting that everything circles back to that aspect, Whittingham admits that losses the past two seasons have been frustrating.
“But we’ve got a job to do and we’re doing everything we can to get that job done,” he said.
EXTRA POINTS: Murphy and Reilly are on preseason national watch lists for the Mackey (top tight end) and Butkus (top linebacker) awards. ... Murphy has dropped his weight from 260 to 250 with 10 percent body fat to become quicker and have more flexibility. Fellow tight end Westlee Tonga has also gotten more lean. ... Utah officials are reporting a season-ticket renewal rate of 98 percent for the third-consecutive year. ... The Utes have no plans to overhaul their current uniforms until 2014.