It’s great to see these guys have these opportunities. —Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
SALT LAKE CITY — It was a banner year for the Utah Utes in the National Football League draft. A school-record eight players were chosen over the seven rounds that took place over a three-day span in Philadelphia.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said a combination of factors came into play.
“I would say No. 1 it’s a credit to our players and the hard work they put out during their time in our program and the development that took place,” he explained. “That’s just a credit to them. It’s great to see these guys have these opportunities.”
Whittingham noted that just about all of them earned their degrees, giving them a Plan B outside of football.
“So we’re very proud of what they’ve done in the classroom on the academic front,” Whittingham said.
The assistant coaches were also praised by Whittingham, who credited them for finding and developing the players.
“I think when all is said and done, the University of Utah is a great place to get a degree and prepare for an NFL career,” Whittingham said. “And the proof is there.”
Utah’s eight draftees were the fourth-most in the nation, trailing only Michigan (11), Alabama (10) and Miami (9). The Utes finished in a tie with Florida and LSU, one spot ahead of Ohio State (7).
“We’ve been saying for several years now that the bar has been raised in recruiting and we have said countless times that the vast majority of our roster we would not have been able to recruit had we not been in the Pac-12 and all that goes with it,” Whittingham said. “Not just being in the Pac-12, but the facilities that we’ve been able to build — just everything, everything that comes with it. And so it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Whittignham acknowledged that each of this year’s draft picks have taken their own unique path to the NFL.
“Some of them have had some pretty major bumps in the road. But what’s great to see is guys that get second chances make the most of those opportunities,” Whittingham said. “That’s very rewarding, very, very rewarding.”
Offensive tackle Garett Bolles led things off for the Utes on Thursday night. The Denver Broncos took him with the 20th pick in the first round.
On Friday, safety Marcus Williams was a second-round selection (42nd overall) by the New Orleans Saints.
Saturday proved to be especially fruitful for Utah with six players getting draft calls. It started with running back Joe Williams going to the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round (121st overall).
“I don’t think words do enough justice to describe how ecstatic I am," Williams said on a teleconference with the 49ers media. "It was a journey to get here. This is a real-world moment right now. I’m taking it in. Emotions are everywhere. I’m proud to be a part of this organization and I can’t wait to fly out there and get to work.”
Williams was followed by three draftees in the fifth round — offensive guard Isaac Asiata (Miami Dolphins, No. 121 overall), cornerback Brian Allen (Pittsburgh Steelers, No. 173) and offensive lineman J.J. Dielman (Cincinnati Bengals, No. 176).
Offensive lineman Sam Tevi (Los Angeles Chargers, No. 190) and defensive end Pita Taumoepenu (San Francisco 49ers, No. 202) joined the mix in the sixth round as the previous school record for NFL draft picks was eclipsed.
"I knew this was going to happen. I knew going into this draft that we had some dogs, some guys who were going to tear it up,” Asiata said. “We'll have even more people going on free agent deals, and they're going to make teams."
Topping the list is defensive end Hunter Dimick. Utah’s career sacks leader was snubbed by the NFL Combine and went undrafted. He signed a free-agent deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Several other Utes inked deals as well (see accompanying story).
"I know Hunter is going to make it. Everybody is sleeping on Hunter, but he's a first-round talent. I truly believe that,” Asiata said. “Hunter will be around for a mini-camp and on the first day, they will know exactly who they got."
Whittingham added that whoever gets Dimick is going to love him.
All eight of Utah’s drafted players participated in last month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, as did former Ute defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. The former East High standout, who transferred to USC as a graduate student last season, was taken by Tampa Bay in the seventh round (223rd overall).
The Utes had four offensive linemen chosen — Bolles, Asiata, Dielman and Tevi — and may add another next season when senior-to-be Leka Uhatafe enters the draft.
“So that’s a very talented offensive line and a great job by coach (Jim) Harding,” Whittingham said. “Again, developing them and assisting them and maximizing their potential.”
As usual, Whittingham watched the draft closely. He and Harding even joined Bolles in Philadelphia Thursday night.
The national media exposure and success in the draft, Whittingham acknowledged, is an obvious boost to recruiting.
“Heck yes,” he said. “What recruit is not going to take note of that.”
Utah’s previous record for players taken in a draft came in 2010. The Utes had six players selected that year: Koa Misi (Miami), Zane Beadles (Denver), Robert Johnson (Tennessee), David Reed (Baltimore), Stevenson Sylvester (Pittsburgh) and R.J. Stanford (Carolina).
Contributing: Amy Donaldson