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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham talks with players after graduation ceremonies in Salt Lake City Friday, May 2, 2014.
Graduation in our athletic department is a big day and that’s the way it should be. That’s why they come here. —Utah athletics director Dr. Chris Hill

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been a busy couple of days up on the hill. Besides having former quarterback Alex Smith serve as commencement speaker, the Utah football program had 26 players walk through graduation exercises.

The Utes donning caps and gowns included Dres Anderson, Brian Blechen, Tevin Carter, Sean Fitzgerald, Wykie Freeman, Jacoby Hale, Latu Heimuli, Charles Henderson, Sese Ianu, Andre Lewis, Tyron Morris-Edwards, Geoffrey Norwood, Nate Orchard, Davion Orphey, Gionni Paul, Thretton Palamo, Marc Pouvave, Greg Reese, Eric Rowe, Junior Salt, Kenneth Scott, Joseph Smith, Westlee Tonga, Junior Tuione, Michael Walker and Karl Williams.

Most were on hand for a gathering of graduating student-athletes from the university Friday morning outside the Huntsman Center.

“How could it not be my favorite day of the year?” said Beth Brennan, who is the academics coordinator for the Utah football program. “It’s just a culmination of all of their hard work. So it’s great to see them enjoy this day.”

It was indeed a day of celebration.

Blechen noted that it’s a big deal.

“When we first get to the university it’s one of the first things Coach preaches. He’s like: ‘You’re here to play football, but the first thing you’ve got to do is get your degree,’” said Blechen, a sociology major. “It was awesome walking today.”

What really made it nice, he added, was going through graduation with several of his teammates.

The whole process drew rave reviews from Scott.

“It’s pretty cool. It means a lot,” said the senior receiver, who received a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer studies and is now pursuing another one in economics. “It’s totally awesome.”

Utah athletics director Dr. Chris Hill credited the support staff, coaches and student-athletes for doing a fabulous job when it comes to being committed to academics.

“We’re pretty proud of what’s happening,” he said. “Graduation in our athletic department is a big day and that’s the way it should be. That’s why they come here.”

Fred Whittingham Jr., Utah’s director of personnel, said it’s made clear from the start of the recruiting process. In the Utes’ very first letter to high school juniors, recruits receive an outline as to what their goals will be as a player in the program.

Everything is anchored and centered, he explained, around four principles.

The first is deciding on a major and earning a degree. The second, Whittingham Jr., continued, is related. It’s to prepare for a successful life outside of football. Things like the diversity of the team, the family atmosphere and service in the community aid in that regard.

The third aspect is experiencing the winning tradition of Utah football and the fourth is preparing players for the NFL.

Academics, though, set the tone.

“It’s the No. 1 reason why these players come to college — to graduate and ensure a future and that is something that we take very seriously here at Utah,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham.

The Utes' football team ranked third in the Pac-12 in the NCAA’s most recent multiyear Academic Progress Rate report, trailing only Stanford and UCLA. The program had the conference’s fourth-best graduation success rate in 2013.

“We put a high priority on it and our players take it very seriously. We are now to the point where many of our players are graduating prior to eligibility running out,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys who will be seniors this fall that will already have their degrees in hand, which is starting to become more and more prevalent.”

Whittingham takes great pride in seeing his players graduate. He noted that in a lot of cases some of them are the first in their families to do so.

“It’s very rewarding,” Whittingham said.

Rewarding enough, he acknowledged, to rank right up there with victories on the football field.

“They’re both very gratifying. I tell our guys all the time that football life is very fleeting. It lasts only a short period of time,” Whittingham said. “The rest of their life is what the degree is for. It’s to give them a future, give them options for the rest of their life once their football life is over.”

Email: dirk@desnews.com

Twitter: @DirkFacer