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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Joe Kruger, left, and Utah Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (92) during warmups as the Univeristy of Utah and Arizona State University play PAC 12 football Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012, in Tempe, Arizona.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah defensive end Joe Kruger, who led the Utes with six sacks last season, will forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft. In a prepared statement, Kruger said he reached his decision to do so after much prayer, consideration and evaluation with his family.

"These past three years, I have been honored to be a part of a very special group of teammates and coaches at the University of Utah. I have cherished what has been my amazing college experience," Kruger said. "The privilege to play under someone as great as Coach Kyle Whittingham has been a tremendous opportunity. The experience of playing together with my brother Dave has been priceless. Now it is my journey to pursue a lifelong dream, which is to become a professional football player in the National Football League.

At 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, Kruger leaves another sizeable void on a Utah front already dealing with the graduation losses of two starters in All-American Star Lotulelei and Kruger's brother Dave. The Utes must also replace defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a, who is joining Gary Andersen's staff at Wisconsin.

Despite missing two games because of a high-ankle sprain, Joe Kruger made 30 tackles (19 solo and eight behind the line of scrimmage) in 2012. He returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown in the opener against Northern Colorado and finished the season with two forced fumbles.

"This decision is one of the toughest that I have ever had to make. As I reflect on the University of Utah, my teammates, all of my coaches, the football staff, and most importantly the Utah fans, I am filled with humility and deep gratitude," Kruger explained. "These past years at Utah have been a tremendous learning and growing experience for me. I want to thank everyone at the university and all the Utes everywhere for their support.

"It is my hope in making this decision that the fans, coaches, teammates, and the Utah athletic department will continue to support me and my family as I take this next step in attaining my goals," he said. "My heart belongs to Utah and I wish continued prosperity and success to my Utah Utes."

The former Pleasant Grove High star appeared in 37 games for the Utes, netting 69 career tackles. He earned Pac-12 honorable mention accolades as a junior.

"Joe and his family spent a lot of time making this decision and concluded that it's in Joe's best interest to forego his senior year of eligibility and enter the draft," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in a released statement. "Joe certainly has NFL potential and we wish him the best as he takes his game to the next level. The Kruger name has been synonymous with Utah football for a lot of years and we are very appreciative for all they have done for our program."

Both Joe and Dave Kruger are looking to join older brother Paul (Baltimore Ravens) and brother-in-law Tony Bergstrom (Oakland Raiders) in the NFL.

Email: dirk@desnews.com Twitter: @DirkFacer