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O’Connell: Utes Rise In Talent Not Translating To NFL Mainstays

Nate Orchard #44 of the Cleveland Browns runs for a second quarter touchdown after intercepting a pass while playing the Detroit Lions during a preseason game at Ford Field on August 30, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – If Utah Football is recruiting better than it ever has, why isn’t it producing better NFL talent?

The NFL season is under way, and that means watching your favorite team start yet another (probably fruitless) quest for a Super Bowl. It also means keeping tabs on your favorite players from local schools who have matriculated to the pro game. We talk all of the time about the importance of recruiting, developing, and producing NFL talent for the Utes, Cougars, Aggies, and even T-Birds and Wildcats. We often view NFL success for the state’s college football programs as a pure numbers game. How many guys are you getting drafted each year?

A favorite talking point amongst all of us in local media is the highlighting of what many consider to be Kyle Whittingham’s best trait as a head coach; his ability to develop under-recruited high school athletes with two or three-star ratings into NFL draftees.

Oftentimes, this athletic alchemy is the result of Whitt and his staff recognizing a player’s potential at a spot they may not have been recruited to play. His seemingly-innate ability has been instrumental in helping Utah create a steady foothold in the NFL draft. This in turn has helped the Utes in recruiting high school players who have designs on pursuing the NFL dream. (And let’s be honest, pretty much EVERY elite high school player has those hopes at age 18).

In turn, Utah’s recruiting class rankings have climbed, slowly but surely, since their inclusion in the Pac-12 conference. What started as an unlikely program trait has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even as Utah fans revel in the health of their teams recruiting pipeline, I find myself eyeing a curious trend.

Not As Many Utes Staying In NFL

While recruiting classes garner stronger and stronger ratings, the Utah-to-the-NFL pipeline has not showed the same growth, particularly in terms of longevity. The NFL’s best former Utes are Eric Weddle and Alex Smith. Both are likely nearing the end of their careers, but they have been long, productive careers.

Both were also staples of Utah football more than a decade ago, long before the Pac-12 was even a glimmer in Kyle Whittingham’s eye. Recent retirees like Sione Pouha, Matt Asiata, Paul Soliai, and Brice McCain can all claim similarly fruitful runs in the League, well beyond the average lifespan for their given positions. It’s harder to highlight Utes from the Pac-12 era enjoying the same stability in the NFL’s cutthroat talent pool.

Why have Utah’s best NFL representatives come from Mountain West recruiting classes? Why have higher-rated recruits not become higher-rated pros? The current list of Utes on NFL game-day 53-man rosters looks like this.

Cody Barton

Tony Bergstrom

Marquise Blair

Garett Bolles (starter)

Devontae Booker

Lo Falemaka

Matt Gay (starter)

Josh Gordon (does he really count?)

Dominique Hatfield

Star Lotulelei (starter)

Tim Patrick

Eric Rowe (starter)

Alex Smith (injured starter)

Pita Taumoepenu

Sam Tevi (starter)

Eric Weddle (starter)

Marcus Williams (starter)

Mitch Wishnowsky (starter)

Nine of the total seventeen (because I refuse to count Gordon) are starters according to the depth charts on the websites of their respective teams. Devontae Booker is listed as a first-string kick-returner, but has struggled to find his hallmark consistency in a Broncos uniform. He now finds himself listed behind two other Pac-12 products in Royce Freeman (Oregon) and Phillip Lindsey (Colorado) who has made good on the NFL equivalent of a walk-on opportunity.

Garett Bolles was a one-man, one-year wrecking machine for the Utes in Pac-12 play. Now, as the starting left tackle for the Denver Broncos, he finds himself categorized as a much-maligned work in progress. Conversely, fellow U-Block products Chris Kemoeatu and Zane Beadles spent nearly a decade apiece in the NFL as full-time starters despite coming from much lower draft positions and levels of recruiting acclaim.

Inexplicably, the majority of Utah’s most decorated players since Pac-12 inclusion find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes the NFL dream. Gionni Paul should have been the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Nobody in the conference (or the country) was more disruptive than No. 13 during the 2015 season. But G-Bo hardly got a sniff in the NFL.

Chase Hansen would have won the award last year if Utah had beaten Washington in the championship game. Instead, Ben Burr-Kirven of Washington took home the award. He also found a spot on the Seattle Seahawks active roster, while Chase remains unclaimed. Even in a time where pass-rushing is at an ultimate premium in the NFL, Sack-Lake-City mayors Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick cannot find a long-term foothold in the NFL.

Paul Kruger was never decorated as the nation’s top defensive end, as Orchard was, and it’s not his name atop the record books for career sacks, but he was able to enjoy an 8-year run that saw him earn more than $30-million and win a Super Bowl ring.

Eric Rowe, Marcus Williams and Star Lotulelei are all examples of Pac-12 Utes building strong careers in the NFL, but it’s not clear whether any of these most recent Utah stars will match the career accomplishments of guys like Jordan Gross, Steve Smith, and the still-active Weddle; who serves as the lone Ute on the NFL’s annual list of the league’s top 100 players. Of course it is not the job of Utah’s coaching staff to produce NFL greats.

The focus is assembling well-rounded teams that can compete for Pac-12 championships, but it almost defies logic that recruiting bigger, faster, stronger, higher-rated players has yet to bear fruit in terms of NFL greatness. We will wait-and-see how it works out for the likes of Barton, Gay, Wishnowski, and company, but the question still begs an answer.

Different Story For BYU Greats

BYU cannot pull the same type of recruits that Utah now gets on a regular basis, but Taysom Hill, Kyle Van Noy, and Ziggy Ansah (who ended up playing football at BYU by sheer dumb luck) are finding levels of success in the NFL that their Ute contemporaries have not.

Utah State Aggies is a respectable Mountain West Conference team these days, and the players they produce are mostly reflective of that. But they also get to claim Bobby Wagner, who is a generational talent at the linebacker position by any measure. It might be reassuring for Utah fans to point to him as anomaly, but the same linebacking corps followed up with Kyler Fackrell and Nick Vigil and soon-to-be high draft pick David Woodward.

Perhaps the Pac-12 Ute prospects lack some intangible chip on the shoulder that their predecessors had built-in that translates to NFL success and longevity. Maybe the years of elevated competition during college take too much of a toll on this generation of Utes and they are worn down by the time their NFL opportunity comes. I’m not sure it can even be explained. All I know is that the Pac-12 Utes we are now watching are on average bigger, stronger, faster, and better than the generations of Utah Football players who came before them. And still, in defiance of all reason, these huge, fast, freakish athletes cannot match the old-school Utes on the pro level.

I don’t bring this up to be critical of the aforementioned players or the coaches preparing them for the NFL. I am genuinely confused by the phenomenon. Somebody please figure out why, and let me know.