SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn’t quite a school record, but Utah did lead the Pac-12 with seven players taken in the 2020 NFL draft.
The Utes wound up tied with Clemson, Florida and Georgia for the fifth-most draft picks overall. LSU led the nation with 14. Michigan and Ohio State had 10 apiece, followed by Alabama with nine.
“I thought we had a pretty good showing,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We’re pleased with it.”
Although Whittingham acknowledged that the Utes were hoping to have a couple more guys drafted, he noted that in all, 12 were either picked or signed priority free agent deals. On Sunday, another one or two could sign with teams willing to give them a shot.
Whittingham said the whole draft process is about giving guys an opportunity.
“Seven is a strong showing,” he said. “i guess every year you could have said. ‘Oh, I wish so and so would have got drafted as well.’”
Utah’s 2020 draftees include cornerback Jaylon Johnson (second round, 50th overall, Chicago Bears); safety Julian Blackmon (third round, 85th overall, Indianapolis Colts); running back Zack Moss (third round, 86th overall, Buffalo Bills); safety Terrell Burgess (third round, 104th overall, Los Angeles Rams); defensive tackle Leki Fotu (fourth round, 114th overall, Arizona Cardinals); defensive end Bradlee Anae (fifth round, 179th overall, Dallas Cowboys); and defensive tackle John Penisini (sixth round, 197h overall, Detroit Lions).
Five former Utes — linebacker Francis Bernard (Dallas Cowboys), Javelin Guidry (New York Jets), quarterback Tyler Huntley (Baltimore Ravens), cornerback Josh Nurse (Baltimore Ravens) and left tackle Darrin Paulo (New Orleans Saints) — signed priority free agent deals shortly after the draft concluded.
Whittingham, who felt many of those guys were worthy of bring drafted, noted that there’s a little disappointment every year for a player that didn’t get picked up in the draft.
“But when you look at the entire body of work — the draft and the priority free agent signees as a whole — I think it was very good for our program and a good showing for our program,” Whittingham said.
Nine of Utah’s draftees and signees were on the defensive side of the ball where the Utes ranked among the national leaders in 2019. They won 11 games last season while repeating as Pac-12 South champions. The team was also in late contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff.
“It was a senior-laden defense and that’s to be expected,” said Whittingham, who noted there were a lot of good players. “If you throw in a couple of underclassmen, that’s what you have.”
As such, Whittingham noted that there’s a of work ahead to rebuild the defense. The offense, meanwhile, has a lot of returnees. However, Utah still needs to replace its starting quarterback, a record-setting running back and a new starter at left tackle.
“I think it was very good for our program and a good showing for our program.” — Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham
“We did lose some really key guys, obviously,” Whittingham said. “But we may have to lean on that offense a little bit early in the season ‘til the defense can get settled in.”
The difference, though, is the offense lost some quality and the defense also has to deal with quantity issues. Three starters on the defensive line and three more in the secondary were drafted.
Moss was the lone draftee on offense.
In 2017, Utah had a school-record eight players taken in the NFL draft. The class included offensive tackle Garett Bolles (first round, 20th overall, Denver Broncos); safety Marcus Williams (second round, 42nd overall, New Orleans Saints); running back Joe Williams (fourth round, 121st overall, San Francsco 49ers); offensive guard Isaac Asiata (fifth round, 164th overall, Miami Dolphins); defensive back Brian Allen (fifth round, 173rd overall, Pittsburgh Steelers); center J.J. Dielman (fifth round, 176th overall, Cincinnati Bengals); offensive tackle Sam Tevi (sixth round, 190th overall, Los Angeles Chargers); and linebacker Pita Taumoepenu (sixth round, 202nd overall, San Francisco 49ers).
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s draft, originally scheduled for Las Vegas, was a virtual experience with most everyone participating from home.
Whittingham said he watched the entire draft on Thursday and Friday evenings. Saturday, though, was a different story.
“It’s a marathon, so I took a bike ride up the canyon and did some things,” he explained. “But I kept checking in on my phone and stayed up to speed. But I didn’t have the stamina to go seven straight hours or whatever it was.”
Since Whittingham replaced Urban Meyer as Utah’s head coach in 2005, the Utes have had 52 players selected in the NFL draft.