SALT LAKE CITY — What would an NFL team look like if it were composed of the best players from Utah universities over the years? Here it is, based entirely on a player’s performance in the National Football League.
It is anchored by three hall of famers, as well as two or three future inductees. The strength of the team is defense, which is surprisingly deep. The team also turned out to be spread almost evenly among the three FBS schools — Utah State 10, BYU 9, Utah 8.
Steve Young (BYU) 1985-99
If we were considering collegiate careers, Jim McMahon would be the frontrunner, with Detmer as backup, but Young had by far the best professional career. Two-time league MVP. Super Bowl champion. Seven Pro Bowls. Pro Football Hall of Fame. Six-time season passing leader. He finished his career with 33,124 passing yards, 232 TD passes, 4,239 rushing yards and 43 rushing touchdowns. Any questions? Imagine what he would’ve done if he hadn’t had to wait seven years before winning the starting job with the 49ers.
Jamal Anderson (Utah) 1994-01
McArthur Lane (Utah State) 1968-78
Anderson had four 1,000-yard rushing seasons and led the NFL in rushing in 1998 with 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns during the Falcons’ march to the Super Bowl. Career totals: 7,614 yards and 41 TDs rushing and receiving. A knee injury ended his career. Lane had a long career by running back standards and totaled 7,442 yards rushing and receiving. The third running back would be Utah State’s Altie Taylor (1969-76).
Steve Smith (Utah) 2001-16
Roy Jefferson (Utah) 1965-76
Kevin Curtis (Utah State) 2003-11
In 15 seasons Smith caught 1,031 passes for 14,731 yards and 81 touchdowns, which puts him among the elite in career totals. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, two-time first-team All-Pro. He’ll get a call from the Hall. Jefferson has been mostly forgotten by Ute fans, but he was a three-time All-Pro selection. He had 451 career catches for 7,539 yards and 52 touchdowns, mostly for the Redskins, and he won a Super Bowl. Curtis, a walk-on at Snow College and later Utah State, was the third receiver for Mike Martz’s great Rams offenses. Following his fourth season, Curtis signed a $32 million-dollar free agent deal to be the Eagles’ No. 1 receiver. That year he caught 77 passes for 1,110 yards and 6 TDs, including a 221-yard, 3-TD effort against the Lions. He appeared to be headed for stardom, but injuries cut short his career. Stats: 253 catches, 3,297 yards, 20 touchdowns. If four- and five-wide sets were employed, BYU’s Austin Collie and Golden Richards would be in the lineup.
Todd Christensen (BYU) 1978-88
Christensen, who died five years ago at the age of 57, gets the call over Chad Lewis, Chris Cooley and Marv Fleming, who all had outstanding pro careers. This is a deep position for Utah schools. Christensen, a college fullback, converted to tight end with the Raiders and became a five-time Pro Bowl player and four-time All-Pro, as well as a Super Bowl champion. He totaled 461 catches, 5,872 yards and 41 touchdowns and led the league twice in receiving. It’s a mystery why he is not in the hall of fame.
Bart Oates (BYU) 1985-95
Jordan Gross (Utah) 2003-13
Donald Penn (Utah State) 2006-
Paul Howard (BYU) 1973-86
Len Rohde (Utah State) 1960-74
Oates was a five-time Pro Bowl center for the 49ers and won three Super Bowls. Gross was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and a first-team All-NFL pick and called it quits at the top of his game. Penn, an undrafted free agent, is beginning his 13th season and has been selected to play in three Pro Bowls. He’s valuable enough that the Raiders gave him their franchise tag in 2008. Howard played 13 seasons for the Broncos and won a Super Bowl. Rohde played 15 years, all for the 49ers, and was a Pro Bowl selection.
Merlin Olsen (Utah State) 1962-76
Manny Fernandez (Utah) 1968-75
Rulon Jones (Utah State) 1980-88
Brett Keisel (BYU) 2002-14
Olsen, a Logan native, is the greatest football player the state has ever produced, period. Do we even need to rehash his credentials? In addition to being named to 14 Pro Bowls, he was a six-time first-team All-NFL selection, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and made the all-decade team for both the '60s and '70s. Fernandez was a two-time second-team All-NFL player who saved his best performances for the three Super Bowls the Dolphins won, especially Super Bowl VII when he had 17 tackles and three sacks and somehow didn’t win the game’s MVP award (his teammates said he deserved it). Jones is credited with 52.5 sacks, but that’s not accurate — sacks weren’t counted as an official stat during his first two years in the league. To put it another way, he actually had 73½ sacks in nine seasons. He was voted the AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 1986. In 12 seasons, Keisel won two Super Bowls and produced 408 tackles and 30 sacks.
Bobby Wagner (Utah State) 2012-
Kurt Gouveia (BYU) 1986-99
Al Smith (Utah State) 1987-96
Rob Morris (BYU) 2000-07
Wagner is simply one of the best football players in the NFL. A four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, he is credited with 778 tackles (405 solo). Gouveia, deemed to be too slow, wasn’t drafted until the eighth round, but played for 13 years, accumulating 937 tackles, mostly for the Redskins. Smith was a star for the Oilers, posting 833 tackles and earning one All-Pro award. Morris’ career was cut short by a knee injury but not before he produced 482 tackles (356 solo). During the 2001 and 2002 seasons he totaled 214 tackles.
Larry Wilson (Utah) 1960-72
Cornell Green (Utah State) 1962-74
Eric Weddle (Utah) 2007-
Norm Thompson (Utah) 1971-79
Wilson, who grew up in Idaho, is another no-brainer. He was a five-time, first-team All-NFL selection and played in eight Pro Bowls. He had 52 interceptions — including a league-high 10 during the (14-game) 1966 season, when he was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. He also pioneered the safety blitz. He was a first-ballot hall of fame inductee. In 1999, Sporting News placed him 43rd on a list of the NFL’s top 100 greatest players. Green was a two-time All-American at USU — for basketball — and was drafted by the NBA. He did not play college football. He was selected to play in the Pro Bowl at two positions — corner and safety. He was a three-time All-NFL pick for the great Cowboys teams of the '60s and '70s, and had 34 interceptions. Weddle, a five-time Pro Bowl pick and three-time All-Pro, has 29 interceptions and 92 pass deflections. Thompson, a three-time all-star, had 33 interceptions and was the highest paid defensive back in the league at one time. This is another deep position for Utah schools. If nickel and dime backs are needed, BYU’s Dick Felt, a three-time first-team All-AFL player (1960-66), and Rex Berry, an All-Pro for the 49ers (1951-56), get the call.
Vai Sikahema (BYU) 1986-93
He played in two Pro Bowls and averaged 10.9 yards per punt return during an eight-year career. He returned four punts for touchdowns.
Lee Johnson (BYU) 1985-02
It’s difficult to argue against a punter who lasted 18 years in the NFL and averaged 42.4 yards per punt, accumulating the third most punting yards (51,979) in history. He once set the Super Bowl record for the longest punt (63 yards).
Jim Turner (Utah State) 1964-79
Turner played 15 years for the Jets and Broncos and was voted to the all-time, All-American Football League second team. He kicked 304 field goals and accounted for 10 of the Jets’ 16 points in their legendary upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III.