clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What’s made Utah so successful at turning out secondary talent for the NFL?

The University of Utah has developed a reputation for successfully developing talent in the secondary and turning out pro-level caliber players

Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams.
Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. Johnson is one of three former University of Utah secondary players taken in the 202 NFL draft who’s turned into a key contributor early in their pro career.
Kyusung Gong, Associated Press

The University of Utah has become known for its ability to put defensive backs in the NFL.

Case in point: in the 2020 NFL draft, the program had eight players selected, and three of those — cornerback Jaylon Johnson and safeties Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess — were taken in the draft’s first three rounds.

Johnson, Blackmon and Burgess are all projected starters for the 2021 season, after Johnson and Blackmon started more than a dozen games each as rookies.

The trio are just the latest in a long line of talented defensive backs the Utes have helped move on to the NFL in the past decade-plus. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham explained what helps the Utes find and cultivate that talent during an appearance on a recent episode of the 2 for 1 Drafts podcast.

How does Utah develop its secondary talent?

Whittingham first points to his two assistants who coach the secondary — defensive coordinator/safeties coach Morgan Scalley and cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah — finding the right type of athletes in the recruiting process.

“Those guys do a good job, first of all, of getting the right talent in the program,” Whittingham said during the podcast. “That’s the first order of business, doing your evaluations and making sure we recruit the right type of people.”

Whittingham also praised the work Scalley and Shah do in working with the players once they arrive at the U.

“Once they get here, those two coaches do a great job of developing that talent and getting the most out of every player that we have in the secondary,” he said.

The third part of the equation is moving players if they are better suited for a different position.

“Some of those guys were not defensive backs when they got here. Some of them were wide receivers that we converted,” Whittingham said. “It’s a situation where we’ve started having a good enough history with these guys that when we approach a player and say, hey maybe your upside is greatest at this position here. There’s credibility because they understand it’s worked in the past for several guys in our program.

“That helps out as well, getting the right people in the right spots.”

Utah successful at getting secondary players drafted

Since 2005 when Whittingham took over as Utah’s head coach, the Utes have had 14 defensive backs selected in the NFL draft. Of those, six have been taken in the second round and only one — not including the seven currently still in the league — lasted fewer than three years in the NFL.

That started with All-Pro safety Eric Weddle in 2007, and the 2020 draft class that included Johnson, Blackmon and Burgess was the first time that three Utah secondary players were taken in the same draft.

“The track record speaks for itself. We’ve had many, many guys move on to the NFL,” Whittingham said.