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.

What former Ute Jaylon Johnson showed as an NFL rookie that makes him a 2021 breakout candidate
What’s next for Terrell Burgess after an injury-shortened first NFL season?

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.”  

Utah secondary players drafted in the Kyle Whittingham era

2007: Eric Weddle, second round

2009: Sean Smith, second round

2009: Brice McCain, sixth round

2010: Robert Johnson, fifth round

2010: R.J. Stanford, seventh round

2011: Brandon Burton, fifth round

2014: Keith McGill, fourth round

2015: Eric Rowe, second round 

2017: Marcus Williams, second round 

2017: Brian Allen, fifth round 

2019: Marquise Blair, second round 

2020: Jaylon Johnson, second round 

2020: Julian Blackmon, third round 

2020: Terrell Burgess, third round

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.