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Utah players discuss the decision of top NFL prospects to skip second-tier bowl games

Utah Utes offensive lineman Isaac Asiata (54) and running back Joe Williams (28) celebrate after Williams ran for a touchdown, putting Utah up 14-0 after the PAT, during a game against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Saturday, Oct.
Utah Utes offensive lineman Isaac Asiata (54) and running back Joe Williams (28) celebrate after Williams ran for a touchdown, putting Utah up 14-0 after the PAT, during a game against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016.
Spenser Heaps,

SALT LAKE CITY — Isaac Asiata understands why a player would choose to skip a bowl game like Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette announced they’d do earlier this week.

But the senior offensive lineman, who also has aspirations of playing in the NFL, is also certain he could never do it.

“There’s two parts to it,” said the Spanish Fork alum. “There’s one in that you’ve got a family to worry about, and you know something could happen and you could get hurt. And then, on the other hand, you know, I couldn’t do that to these guys. I couldn’t leave them.”

McCaffrey and Fournette, junior running backs who rushed for nearly 4,000 yards in their respective careers, faced the prospect, as does Asiata, of playing in what most consider a second-tier bowl game.

Stanford (9-3, Pac-12) will play in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 30 against North Carolina (8-4, ACC), while LSU (7-4, SEC) takes on Louisville (9-3, ACC) in the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 31.

Utah (8-4, Pac-12) will face Indiana (6-6, Big Ten) in the Foster Farms Bowl, and while that wasn’t the post-season game the team aspired to play in, Asiata said that doesn’t matter to him.

“I’m not saying Christian McCaffrey is selfish, but if it was me, it would be selfish of me to think that way,” Asiata said. “I’d sell out for these guys whether I’m a senior or a freshman. I don’t think it’s that great of an idea to do.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find a player whose NFL career was diminished because of an injury sustained in a bowl game. BYU linebacker Uani Unga led the nation in tackles his senior season but went undrafted after he injured his knee in BYU’s 31-13 loss to Washington in the 2013 Fight Hunger Bowl. He did end up signing a three-year deal with the New York Giants after impressing them on the practice squad. He is currently on injured reserve with the Giants.

As commentators and columnists theorized and debate whether this would become a trend, whether it would hurt college football, and how this was a natural by-product of the college football playoff system, players analyzed it from a much more personal perspective.

“It does stand out,” said Utah senior wide receiver Tim Patrick. It’s your decision. You got to do what’s best for your family. A guy like that, that’s their whole offensive focus point, so he’s probably thinking in his head that he doesn’t want to get hurt knowing he’s going to have a lot of touches playing in a game that’s not really going to mean much to his team. I don’t mind it. I would play personally.”

Patrick said some of his rationale for playing is that he wants one more game to show NFL scouts what he’s capable of on the football field.

“I like the position I’m in,” Patrick said. “The more games I can get, the better because I missed four games this year.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said he didn’t have a problem with players like McCaffrey and Fournette opting to forgo the bowl game because “they’ve given so much to the university” in their time as players. He wasn’t sure it would become common because each player's circumstances are so unique to him.

Several players were still digesting the decision.

“I just have never heard of it,” said sophomore safety Chase Hansen. “So I haven’t really thought much about it. It’s definitely interesting. I don’t know if I’d ever do it.”

Hansen, Asiata and Patrick all understand the fear of sustaining an injury that might diminish or end their NFL hopes. They've all dealt with their own injuries, as well as watched teammates struggle with the brutal realities of football.

"One play," Hansen said. "It can happen on one play."

Still, they said there is nothing like playing with and for your college teammates. And for Asiata, being there for the guys who've been there for him trumps everything else.

“I understand,” Asiata said. “I have a wife and family, too. I could easily be done. But I have these guys, and these guys are my family too. And they’ve been with me since day one. … I couldn’t walk out on one last game with them.”

And none of them know whether other players might follow this path in the future.

“I don’t know,” Hansen said. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports