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Mike Grant: Decade-long success has made Utah football a pro pipeline

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 11:39 p.m. MDT

Newly signed Cleveland Browns linebacker and former Utah Ute Paul Kruger speaks during an NFL news conference announcing his five-year, $40 million contract March 13 in Berea, Ohio. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Associated Press) Newly signed Cleveland Browns linebacker and former Utah Ute Paul Kruger speaks during an NFL news conference announcing his five-year, $40 million contract March 13 in Berea, Ohio. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Associated Press)

The last 10 years have been remarkable for the University of Utah football program. Urban Meyer and Alex Smith took college football by storm, busting the BCS and winning the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. The busting continued with Kyle Whittingham and the Utes rolling over the Crimson Tide in the 2009 Sugar Bowl. The all-important jump into the Pac-12 solidified Utah’s status as a major program.

But perhaps one of the most defining aspects of the Utah football over of the last decade has been its success in sending players into the NFL.

Since 2003, the Utes have had 27 players get their names called at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. From No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith in 2005 to No. 252 overall pick (out of 254) Freddie Brown in 2009, the simple fact is that the University of Utah gets players drafted. The trend continued in the 2013 NFL draft with No. 14 overall pick Star Lotulelei getting taken by the Carolina Panthers and then with Joe Kruger going to the Philadelphia Eagles in the seventh round.

Former Utah Ute Star Lotulelei reacts after being selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Former Utah Ute Star Lotulelei reacts after being selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Compared to their Pac-12 foes, Utah keeps pace, which is astounding considering the Utes have only been in the conference for two years. No surprise, USC is in a class all by itself with 74 players drafted since 2003. The second tier of the Pac-12 pipeline consists of Cal (44), Phil “Nike” Knight and the Oregon Ducks (38), and Stanford (34).

The third tier of the Pac-12 consists of a number of teams with roughly the same number of players drafted since 2003. Oregon State leads that group (28). Utah and UCLA are level with each other (27), followed by Arizona State (26), Colorado (25), and Arizona (22). Utah is well ahead of Washington (16) and Washington State (15).

For those wondering, long-time archrival BYU has had 14 players drafted since 2003.

Many of the Utes drafted have been resoundingly successful at the next level. The San Diego Chargers traded up to pick safety Eric Weddle, who has since taken the league by storm. He has 16 career interceptions, five sacks, and last season signed the largest contract for a safety in NFL history.

Former Utah Ute Star Lotulelei, right, reacts as his wife Fuiva holds their daughter Pesatina, 1, after being selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Former Utah Ute Star Lotulelei, right, reacts as his wife Fuiva holds their daughter Pesatina, 1, after being selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Paul Kruger began his career buried on the Baltimore Ravens depth chart, but has since become a starter and a Super Bowl Champion. He had a career year with nine sacks and one interception and signed a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns worth $40 million.

Steve Smith, the standout wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers, was drafted in 2001 at the tail end of Ron McBride’s tenure. He says he has taken notice of the long-term progression of Utah’s football program.

“…In the 80’s and 90’s … we were considered a small school,” Smith said. “I think now people are recognizing that there’s a lot of talent coming. I think it’s great. … I think it’s exciting and I think it’s awesome that we are being recognized as a place that can produce solid, consistent athletes.”

The future is bright. As the Utes continue to build to compete for a Pac-12 Championship, Utah’s growing reputation as a professional pipeline will aid recruiting and development of future NFL talent. With players like Jake Murphy, CJ Poutasi, and Eric Rowe currently on Utah’s roster, the trend continues, making the NFL draft more and more exciting for Utah fans every single year.

Star Lotulelei, from Utah, reacts next to his wife Fuiva as they hold their daughters Pesatina, 1, left, and Arilani, 3, center, while his niece Elyena Tukuafu, 5, right, cheers after he was selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Star Lotulelei, from Utah, reacts next to his wife Fuiva as they hold their daughters Pesatina, 1, left, and Arilani, 3, center, while his niece Elyena Tukuafu, 5, right, cheers after he was selected 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers during an NFL football draft party at their home, Thursday, April 25, 2013, in South Jordan, Utah. The Utes have sent 27 players into the NFL via the NFL draft since 2003. (Rick Bowmer, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The simple fact is this: The University of Utah gets players drafted into the NFL.

Mike is a graduate of the University of Utah and has produced KSL SportsBeat since 2005. Email: mgrant@ksl.com; twitter.com/mikegrantksl

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