LOS ANGELES — Several Utah football players will pull their Ute uniforms over their shoulder pads for the final time on New Year’s Day.

This group, which includes seniors and underclassmen who are eyeing a future in the NFL, will always be remembered for, among other things, helping guide the Utes to their first Pac-12 title and their first Rose Bowl berth.

No. 11 Utah faces No. 6 Ohio State Saturday (3 p.m. MST, ESPN).

Some of these underclassmen could have left after the 2020 campaign but decided to return in hopes that this season would produce these results.  

All-America linebacker Devin Lloyd, who is expected to be a first-round pick in next spring’s NFL draft, can’t imagine a better way to close out his career than to play in a game steeped in tradition and mystique.

“Couldn’t script it any better,” Lloyd said. 

The only thing that would make this experience even better, of course, is winning the Rose Bowl. 

“I’m just looking to go out the right way,” Lloyd said. “Looking to go out the right way as well as everyone on the team.”

Lloyd has had such a laser focus on this game that he’s not spending much time thinking about the NFL.

“I’ve talked to a couple of guys about what’s coming in the future,” he said. “I’m focused so much on finishing this season right and ending my career on a high note. I have expectations of what’s coming in the future. I’m excited for that. Right now, I’m focused on Ohio State.”

Others that have declared for the draft, forgoing their final year of eligibility, include offensive lineman Nick Ford, linebacker Nephi Sewell, tight end Cole Fotheringham, defensive lineman Mika Tafua, running back T.J. Pledger and wide receiver Britain Covey

Coach Kyle Whittingham is happy to see them playing in the Rose Bowl, particularly those players who hail from Southern California. 

“It would be great to see them have success here in their last game down here on their home turf,” Whittingham said. “We would like to send the seniors out the right way and the upperclassmen that are going to be leaving.” 

Ford said ending his career at the Rose Bowl is meaningful. 

“It’ll be fun. I’m enjoying the bowl game experience. I’m excited for the actual Rose Bowl itself. I’m not trying to focus too much about these roses behind me,” he said. “I’m more focused on, OK, it’s practice time, got to go out there and practice; weight lifting time, I’ve got to go weight lift. If it’s time to have fun, I’ll go out and have fun.”

Covey, who is the school’s all-time leader in punt return yardage, as well as pithy quotes, appreciates the magnitude of this game. 

“This is my last game. I’m soaking it in,” he said. “I’m looking forward to just playing another football game for two reasons. One, it’s my last game in a Utah uniform, to play with this group of guys specifically, these brothers. But there’s so many things that aren’t guaranteed with the NFL. This might be my last game in a uniform in general. I hope not. I don’t plan on it being, but it very well could be that, so I’m cherishing it.”

Whittngham called Covey “one of the best leaders that’s ever come through the University of Utah. Tremendous player obviously on the field as well. He’s done so much for us as a slot receiver, punt returner, kickoff returner. So he’s just meant so much to our program for the last 12 years or however long he’s been here, and we’re excited that he’s got one more chance to play again this weekend.”

Sewell expressed gratitude for his experiences at Utah. 

“It’s a blessing. You know, reflecting on my whole journey, especially within the last week or two with my family, making my decision. It’s been a long time coming. But can’t help but smile throughout it all, you know?” he said. “And ups and downs, just like everything in this world, nothing’s ever going to be perfect. But just grateful to be here and end it off with, I guess, the Granddaddy of Them All.”

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Ford said this game will help build the program moving forward and will help the players that will be returning. 

“The thing I keep saying is it’s not necessarily about how you got there but the end result. I know that the start of the season didn’t go too well, and as we continue on, we began to improve over the year, and now that we’re here, we’ve got to take full advantage of that. So it’s really important to not only the seniors but the underclassmen. They see how important it is. With all the adversity they faced this year with (Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe), I feel like it kind of matured them a little quicker than having to stay in the program two, three years. I think everyone on the team, especially those who came back, find it really important to go ahead and finish because we’re here, so why not us?”

Lloyd has had fun this week in Los Angeles with his teammates. But beating the Buckeyes is the priority. 

“As much as we want to enjoy all the festivities that come with it, we know ultimately we’re here to play a game and win a game,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to just make sure we put ourselves in the best position to win.”

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