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Brad Rock: Utah becoming stopover for NFL talent

Published: Wednesday, May 1 2013 5:50 p.m. MDT

San Diego Chargers defensive back Eric Weddle pulls in a pass during the teams' OTA's in San Diego, Monday, May 13, 2013.  (Lenny Ignelzi, ASSOCIATED PRESS) San Diego Chargers defensive back Eric Weddle pulls in a pass during the teams' OTA's in San Diego, Monday, May 13, 2013. (Lenny Ignelzi, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to selling points, the University of Utah football program has plenty. There is a newly minted football center, as well as a modern stadium with a million dollar view. There are academic and athletic credentials, stately buildings and helpful coaches and teammates.

But few things recruit players better than a long list of alumni in the NFL. By that measurement, compared to its instate rivals, Utah is the host with the most.

Don’t think the Utes skip over that in their sales pitch.

“It’s a big help, and we use all those positives in our recruiting,” coach Kyle Whittingham said on Monday. “That’s certainly one of our strengths, is the (number of) guys we put in the NFL. We currently have, I think, 31 at last count, so we’re proud of that.”

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, left, during NFL football training camp in St. Joseph, Mo., Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013.  (Orlin Wagner, AP) Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, left, during NFL football training camp in St. Joseph, Mo., Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. (Orlin Wagner, AP)

Not that he’s (wink, wink) keeping track.

The fact Whittingham knows exactly the number of players in the NFL shows he indeed is keeping tabs — and that he uses it to the max.

“Players are here for two reasons,” he said. “They’re here to get a degree and hopefully get the chance to move on to the next level. And I think we’re giving them the opportunity to do that.”

An ESPN.com list of NFL players on teams at the start of the preseason showed the Utes had more current NFL players (31) than the other two big-college teams in Utah combined. BYU and Utah State each had 13.

Utah ranked in the middle (sixth) of the Pac-12, but one more NFL player would have tied it for fourth with Stanford and UCLA.

Cleveland Browns linebacker Paul Kruger (99) and nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin during training camp at the NFL football team's facility in Berea, Ohio Sunday, July 28, 2013.  (Mark Duncan, AP) Cleveland Browns linebacker Paul Kruger (99) and nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin during training camp at the NFL football team's facility in Berea, Ohio Sunday, July 28, 2013. (Mark Duncan, AP)

The Miami Dolphins had five Utes: Sam Brenner, Koa Misi, Derrick Shelby, Paul Soliai and R.J. Stanford.

The No. 1 pro producer in the Pac-12 was USC with 53. Cal — which fired its coach last fall — had 45 players on NFL rosters, with Oregon supplying 39. Arizona State had 29, Oregon State 24, Arizona 20, Washington 16, Colorado 15 and Washington State 11.

Utah’s NFL total was above the Pac-12 average (28.7). Not counting talent-rich USC — which always skews the numbers — Utah had five more NFL players than the average for the rest of the conference (26.3).

The Utes' total was also surprisingly close to mega-programs such as Texas A&M (32) and Michigan (34).

Whether this will translate into wins is debatable. But as co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson noted, “I think it helps. It certainly doesn’t hurt you to see guys that have been here playing in the league and knowing they come out of the University of Utah. Everybody’s dream when they start is to get to the highest level they can get. To come to a school that puts out people who can play in the NFL, it’s a great deal.”

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) looks on during an NFL football training camp practice in Spartanburg, S.C., Tuesday, July 30, 2013.  (Chuck Burton, AP) Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) looks on during an NFL football training camp practice in Spartanburg, S.C., Tuesday, July 30, 2013. (Chuck Burton, AP)

While some NFL prospects hook on with teams as free agents but don’t stick (by Friday, Utah’s total had dropped to 30 and USU’s to 12, while BYU’s had risen to 14), Utah is nevertheless building a reputation for pro talent. Five Utes were drafted in 2005. In 2009 and 2010 a combined 10 players were selected.

In the last decade, Utah has had 24 players drafted, compared to 11 for BYU and eight for USU.

“Every selling point, you use to your benefit,” said recruiting coordinator Morgan Scalley. “For the most part, schools are all going to have good academics, going to have a good support system. The two main points are do they feel comfortable when they’re here and … is this a program they feel is heading in the right direction? So we’ve got to win. Winning is the biggest thing here.”

Carolina Panthers' Star Lotulelei (96) runs through a drill during an NFL football training camp practice in Spartanburg, S.C., Sunday, July 28, 2013.  (Chuck Burton, AP) Carolina Panthers' Star Lotulelei (96) runs through a drill during an NFL football training camp practice in Spartanburg, S.C., Sunday, July 28, 2013. (Chuck Burton, AP)

Scalley’s right, all schools have numerous selling points. But for many 18-year-olds, the potential to play in the NFL is an overriding priority.

“I think without a doubt that NFL teams, when they look at the University of Utah, see a disciplined program and that its players understand hard work — and there’s not a lot of drama,” Scalley said.

Yet in terms of placing players in the pros, “dramatic” isn’t a bad way to describe it.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

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