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Why this could be the best NFL draft for Utah prep-developed talent

Quarterback Zach Wilson throws during BYU pro day in Provo.
Quarterback Zach Wilson throws during BYU pro day in Provo on Friday, March 26, 2021. Wilson, who starred at Corner Canyon High, is expected to be a top-five pick in this year’s NFL draft, and the overall consensus is that the New York Jets will take Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Over the past five years, more football players who’ve prepped at Utah high schools have been taken in the NFL draft than any other time in history.

In the past five years, 17 players who’ve played at least part of their high school years in Utah have been drafted. That represents 16% of the 104 Utah high school players who have been taken in the draft all time (and doesn’t count two Utah high schoolers who were supplemental draft picks), per data researched via Pro Football Reference.

While there have been four times when four Utah high schoolers were taken in the same NFL draft, the 2019 draft broke that record, when five players who prepped in Utah were selected.

This year could reset the bar on what’s already becoming a high standard, though.

That is thanks, in large part, to two prospects who both could have their names called in the top five picks in the draft (which runs April 29-May 1), as well as a handful of other players who have day 2 or 3 draft potential.

Everything starts at the top for Utah-developed prep talent in the 2021 draft class, though, and is the leading reason why this year could set a new benchmark.

Oregon’s Penei Sewell, who prepped at Desert Hills High, is seen as a first-round talent in the 2021 NFL draft and has been linked as a possibility with the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 5.
John Bazemore, Associated Press

Utah’s top talents in the 2021 draft

Two offensive stars, former Corner Canyon quarterback Zach Wilson and former Desert Hills offensive tackle Penei Sewell, are projected to go early in the draft. Eight Utah high schoolers have been a first-round pick all time, but never in the same season. In other words, it will make history when, not if, Wilson and Sewell become the first pair to do so.

The highest a Utah high schooler has ever been selected was former Logan High and Utah State defensive tackle Merlin Olsen, who went third overall to the Los Angeles Rams in 1962. There have been two others taken in the top five as well — Olsen’s brother Phil, also a Logan and USU grad (No. 4 to the Boston Patriots, 1970), and former Roy and BYU quarterback Jim McMahon (No. 5 to the Chicago Bears, 1982).

Wilson, who played three seasons at BYU and watched his draft stock rise swiftly as he led the Cougars to an 11-1 record in 2020, has been linked heavily to the New York Jets at the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft. That thinking gained momentum Monday, when the Jets traded the team’s starter the past three years, Sam Darnold, to the Carolina Panthers.

“Yeah, great staff, love those guys,” Wilson said of the Jets following BYU’s pro day a week and a half ago, when Jets general manager Joe Douglas and coach Robert Saleh were in attendance. “Joe Douglas is a great guy and it was good to see him out here. They got a good thing going. My Zoom interactions with them have been like any other team, trying to go through (the process) and they just try to pick your brain, see what you are about, and how you process things, so it has been good.”

Even if Wilson isn’t picked by the Jets, the prevailing thought is quarterbacks will dominate the first several picks of the draft, and Wilson isn’t expected to last outside the top five picks. He’ll become the sixth Utah high school quarterback to be drafted, joining a group that includes McMahon, Luke Falk (Logan), Scott Mitchell (Springville), Gifford Nielsen (Provo) and Terry Nofsinger (the long-closed South High).

Sewell, meanwhile, is seen as the best offensive tackle in this year’s class by many draft experts and could also be a top-five pick. The former Oregon standout isn’t expected to fall out of the top 15, and one of the most popular destinations for Sewell in mock drafts is Cincinnati with the No. 5 pick overall.

“I just wanted to wake people up and (let them) know that I’m still OT1 in this draft,” Sewell, who opted out of the 2020 season during the pandemic, told NFL Network’s Taylor Bisciotti last Friday after Oregon’s pro day. “What I bring to the table is totally different than what everybody has seen.”

What other Utah high schoolers could get drafted?

While this is the most top-heavy draft class for Utah high schoolers, there are several other players who could be drafted. In particular, defensive tackles Jay Tufele (Bingham High) and Khyiris Tonga (Granger), offensive tackle Brady Christensen (Bountiful) and wide receivers Simi Fehoko (Brighton) and Dax Milne (Bingham) represent the state’s best talent beyond Wilson and Sewell.

Tufele, at one point, was seen as a possible late first-round pick before he opted out of the 2020 season, though the former USC standout could very well be a Day 2 selection. ESPN’s Todd McShay currently ranks Tufele as the No. 74 prospect in this class, which puts him squarely in third-round value.

Defensive tackle Jay Tufele participates in Southern California’s pro day football workout for NFL scouts Wednesday, March 24, 2021, in Los Angeles. Tufele is a Bingham High product who has a mid-round grade in this year’s NFL draft.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

Fehoko, who finished his three-year Stanford career with 62 receptions for 1,146 yards and nine touchdowns, has Day 3 draft potential, as does Milne, Wilson’s favorite target at BYU last season. Tonga and BYU tight end Matt Bushman were seen as the Cougars’ top NFL draft prospects following the 2019 season, but both chose to come back and could be late-round selections.

The most polarizing prospect among these players, though, is Christensen. While the consensus is he will get drafted, where he’s selected varies widely. After BYU’s pro day, NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said, “He’s strong, physical, explosive. … With a workout like he had, he’s going to have guys in the league who like him. (I’d be) stunned if he gets out of the third round.”

On Monday, though, McShay called Christensen a Day 3 possibility, meaning he’d fall beyond the third round and into the draft’s final day. “He has a chance to come in and be a backup early in his career. He could wind up being a starter at some point down the line,” McShay said during a conference call.

How does this year compare to the past?

The prep talent coming out of the state is enjoying its most successful time in history, as there has been at least one Utah high schooler taken in the past 21 NFL drafts. Of the 17 taken in the past five years, 14 of those players are still in the league.

While Wilson and Sewell could end up as the highest duo ever taken in the same draft, they have a challenge to match the careers of another pair that was selected high. In addition to Merlin Olsen going No. 3 in the 1962 draft, former Ogden High (and USU) offensive tackle Clyde Brock went 20th overall to the Bears in the second round.

Brock lasted two years in the NFL before becoming a four-time CFL all-star. Olsen is a Pro Football Hall of Famer. He was a 14-time Pro Bowler in his 15 seasons with the Rams and earned All-Pro honors six times while helping Los Angeles reach the NFC Championship in three consecutive seasons (1974-76).

In 2002, two Utah high schoolers — Doug Jolley of Dixie and Hunter’s Anton Palepoi — were selected in the second round — and in 1980, four players who prepped locally were drafted, including two in the second round, led by two-time Pro Bowler Rulon Jones of Weber High.

Free safety Julian Blackmon, who played at Layton High and the University of Utah, started 14 games as a rookie last season for the Indianapolis Colts. He was a third-round pick by the team in the 2020 NL draft.
Brett Carlsen, Associated Press

More recently, the past two drafts could have significant potential for Utah high schoolers. Three former Utah Utes and Utah high schoolers were taken in 2020 — Julian Blackmon (Layton), Leki Fotu (Herriman) and John Penisini (West Jordan), and Blackmon (14) and Penisini (12) started double-digit games as rookies for the Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions, respectively. Alohi Gilman, who played one season at Orem High as a junior, was a reserve for the Los Angeles Chargers.

In 2019, five Utah high schoolers were drafted. Two former Utes were drafted in the third and fifth rounds and have found success — Cody Barton (Brighton) with Seattle and Matt Gay (Orem) with the Los Angeles Rams, though Gay is not with the team that drafted him, Tampa Bay. Three others were taken in the seventh round, and all three of those players — John Ursua (Cedar and Westlake), Jackson Barton (Brighton) and Kaden Elliss (Judge Memorial) — are still trying to make a mark in the league.

Which brings us back to this year, and the possibilities ahead when the draft kicks off later this month.

If Tufele and Christensen join Wilson and Sewell as draft picks, that would mean only one of the three others — Fehoko, Milne or Tonga — would need to be drafted to match the record number of Utah high school players taken in one draft. Two, of course, would reset that mark.


Merlin Olsen, right, of the Los Angeles Rams, was drafted by the Rams No. 3 overall in the 1962 NFL draft. Olsen prepped at Logan High and played at Utah State.
Associated Press

Utah high school players taken in the NFL draft

Information courtesy Pro Football Reference

Round 1

  • 2017: Garett Bolles, OT, Westlake High, No. 20 to Denver Broncos
  • 2013: Star Lotulelei, DT, Bingham High, No. 14 to Carolina Panthers
  • 2006: Haloti Ngata, DT, Highland High, No. 12 to Baltimore Ravens
  • 1998: Kevin Dyson, WR, Clearfield High, No. 16 to Tennessee Oilers
  • 1982: Jim McMahon, QB, Roy High, No. 5 to Chicago Bears
  • 1976: Mark Koncar, OT, Murray High, No. 23 to Green Bay Packers
  • 1970: Phil Olsen, DT/C, Logan High, No. 4 to Boston Patriots
  • 1962: Merlin Olsen, DT, Logan High, No. 3 to Los Angeles Rams

Round 2

  • 2015: Nate Orchard, DE, Highland High, No. 51 to Cleveland Browns
  • 2014: Xavier Su’a-Filo, OG, Timpview High, No. 33 to Houston Texans
  • 2011: Stephen Paea, DT, Timpview High, No. 53 to Chicago Bears
  • 2010: Zane Beadles, OT, Hillcrest High, No. 45 to Denver Broncos
  • 2009: Paul Kruger, DE/OLB, Timpanogos High, No. 57 to Baltimore Ravens
  • 2002: Doug Jolley, TE, Dixie High, No. 55 to Oakland Raiders
  • 2002: Anton Palepoi, DE, Hunter High, No. 60 to Seattle Seahawks
  • 2001: Andre Dyson, DB, Clearfield High, No. 60 to Tennessee Titans
  • 1980: Rulon Jones, DE, Weber High, No. 42 to Denver Broncos
    Mat Mendenhall, DE, East High, No. 55 to Washington Redskins
  • 1973: Golden Richards, WR, Granite High, No. 46 to Dallas Cowboys
  • 1967: Ron McCall, LB, Clearfield High, No. 40 to San Diego Chargers
  • 1962: Clyde Brock, OT, Ogden High, No. 20 to Chicago Bears

Round 3

  • 2020: Julian Blackmon, S, Layton High, No. 85 to Indianapolis Colts
  • 2019: Cody Barton, LB, Brighton High, No. 88 to Seattle Seahawks
  • 2016: Bronson Kaufusi, DE, Timpview High, No. 70 to Baltimore Ravens
    Nick Vigil, LB, Fremont High, No. 87 to Cincinnati Bengals
  • 2012: Tony Bergstrom, OG, Skyline High, No. 95 to Oakland Raiders
  • 2007: Stewart Bradley, LB, Highland High, No. 87 to Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2005: Sione Po’uha, DT, East High, No. 88 to New York Jets
  • 2004: Chris Cooley, TE, Logan High, No. 81 to Washington Redskins
  • 2003: Kevin Curtis, WR, Bingham High, No. 74 to St. Louis Rams
  • 1997: Greg Clark, TE, Viewmont High, No. 77 to San Francisco 49ers
    Derek Smith, OLB, American Fork High, No. 80 to Washington Redskins
  • 1985: Hal Garner, LB, Logan High, No. 63 to Buffalo Bills
  • 1978: Gifford Nielsen, QB, Provo High, No. 73 to Houston Oilers
  • 1976: Steve Maughan, LB, Logan High, No. 91 to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • 1973: Pete Van Valkenburg, RB, Hillcrest High, No. 66 to New Orleans Saints
  • 1972: Mark Bateman, P, Highland High, No. 78 to Dallas Cowboys
Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes helps his new starting quarterback, Scott Mitchell, show off his new jersey to reporters at the Pontiac, Mich., Silverdome Monday, March 7, 1994. Mitchell, who played at Springville High and the University of Utah, is one of five Utah high school quarterbacks to be taken in the NFL draft (in 1990 by Miami), and former Corner Canyon QB Zach Wilson is expected to be the sixth in 2021.
Richard Sheinwald, Associated Press

Round 4

  • 2020: Leki Fotu, DT, Herriman High, No. 114 to Arizona Cardinals
  • 2018: Dalton Schultz, TE, Bingham High, No. 137 to Dallas Cowboys
  • 2008: Shawn Murphy, OG, Lone Peak High, No. 110 to Miami Dolphins
    Bryan Kehl, LB, Brighton High, No. 123 to New York Giants
    David Hale, OG, Fremont High, No. 133 to Baltimore Ravens
  • 2000: Junior Ioane, DT, North Sanpete High, No. 107 to Oakland Raiders
  • 1990: Scott Mitchell, QB, Springville High, No. 93 to Miami Dolphins
  • 1985: Kyle Morrell, DB, Viewmont High, No. 106 to Minnesota Vikings
  • 1980: Rick Parros, RB, Granite High, No. 107 to Denver Broncos
  • 1972: Jeff Lyman, LB, Skyline High, No. 82 to St. Louis Cardinals
  • 1949: Bob Summerhays, LB/FB, East High, No. 34 to Green Bay Packers

Round 5

  • 2019: Matt Gay, K, Orem High, No. 145 to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • 2017: Isaac Asiata, OG, Spanish Fork High, No. 164 to Miami Dolphins
  • 2005: Scott Young, OG, Hillcrest High, No. 172 to Philadelphia Eagles
  • 1995: Lance Scott, C, Taylorsville High, No. 165 to Arizona Cardinals
  • 1952: Keever Jankovich, LB/DE, Tooele High, No. 60 to Cleveland Browns

Round 6

  • 2020: Alohi Gilman, S, Orem High, No. 186 to Los Angeles Chargers
    John Penisini, DT, West Jordan High, No. 197 to Detroit Lions
  • 2018: Luke Falk, QB, Logan High, No. 199 to Tennessee Titans
  • 2017: Pita Taumoepenu, DE, Timpview High, No. 202 to San Francisco 49ers
  • 2004: Kirk Chambers, OT, Provo High, No. 176 to Cleveland Browns
  • 1995: Travis Hall, DE, West Jordan High, No. 181 to Atlanta Falcons
  • 1994: Brant Boyer, LB, North Summit High, No. 177 to Miami Dolphins
  • 1985: Mike Hamby, DE, Lehi High, No. 141 to Buffalo Bills
  • 1981: Glenn Redd, LB, Ogden High, No. 166 to New Orleans Saints
  • 1958: Merrill Douglas, FB, Olympus High, No. 65 to Chicago Bears
  • 1939: Barney McGarry, OG/T, Park City High, No. 43 to Cleveland Rams

Round 7

  • 2019: John Ursua, WR, Cedar City and Westlake High, No. 236 to Seattle Seahawks
    Jackson Barton, OT, Brighton High, No. 240 to Indianapolis Colts
    Kaden Elliss, LB, Judge Memorial High, No. 244 to New Orleans Saints
  • 2017: Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, DT, East High, No. 223 to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • 2011: Stanley Havili, RB/FB, Cottonwood High, No. 240 to Philadelphia Eagles
  • 2007: C.J. Ah You, DE, Lone Peak High, No. 239 to Buffalo Bills
  • 2004: Ryon Bingham, DT, Alta High, No. 204 to San Diego Chargers
    Colby Bockwoldt, OLB, Northridge High, No. 240 to New Orleans Saints
  • 1996: Kerry Hicks, DE, Highland High, No. 234 to Carolina Panthers
Miami Dolphin tight end Bruce Hardy (84) hangs onto the ball after catching a David Woodley pass for a touchdown at Miami’s Orange Bowl, Saturday, Jan. 8, 1983. Hardy, who prepped at Bingham High, played 12 seasons in the NFL, all with the Dolphins.
Phil Sandlin, Associated Press

Round 8 and beyond

Note: The NFL changed to its current seven-round draft format in 1994.

  • 1988: Steve Kaufusi, DE/DT, South High, Round 12, No. 319 to Philadelphia Eagles
  • 1986: Cary Whittingham, LB, Provo High, Round 9, No. 230 to Cincinnati Bengals
  • 1983: Maurice Turner, RB, Layton High, Round 12, No. 325 to Minnesota Vikings
    Chuck Ehin, NT/DE, Layton High, Round 12, No. 329 to San Diego Chargers
  • 1982: Steve Clark, NT/G, Skyline High, Round 9, No. 239 to Miami Dolphins
  • 1981: Art Plunkett, OT, Skyline High, Round 8, No. 216 to Los Angeles Rams
  • 1980: Gary Padjen, LB, Kearns High, Round 11, No. 300 to Dallas Cowboys
  • 1979: Dave Parkin, DB, Highland High, Round 9, No. 239 to Atlanta Falcons
  • 1978: Bruce Hardy, TE, Bingham High, Round 9, No. 247 to Miami Dolphins
  • 1976: Orrin Olsen, C, Orem High, Round 8, No. 222 to Kansas City Chiefs
  • 1974: Ron Rydalch, DT, Tooele High, Round 8, No. 197 to New York Jets
  • 1971: Gordon Jolley, OT/G, Granite High, Round 17, No. 436 to Detroit Lions
  • 1970: Dave Smith, RB, Davis High, Round 13, No. 328 to Green Bay Packers
  • 1968: Jack Gehrke, WR, South High, Round 10, No. 265 to Kansas City Chiefs
  • 1967: Lou Andrus, LB, Granite High, Round 11, No. 269 to Denver Broncos
  • 1964: Dick Leeuwenburg, T, Olympus High, Round 11, No. 154 to Chicago Bears
  • 1961: Ken Petersen, OG, South High, Round 14, No. 183 to Minnesota Vikings
    Terry Nofsinger, QB, South High, Round 17, No. 230 to Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 1956: Jack Hill, HB/K, Davis High, Round 13, No. 151 to Baltimore Colts
  • 1954: Earl Lindley, B, South Cache High, Round 16, No. 186 to Chicago Bears
  • 1951: Rex Berry, DB, Carbon High, Round 14, No. 162 to San Francisco 49ers
  • 1948: Barney Hafen, E, Dixie High, Round 19, No. 167 to Detroit Lions
    Frank Williams, FB/LB, Davis High, Round 20, No. 176 to New York Giants
    Frank Nelson, HB, Bingham High, Round 20, No. 179 to Boston Yanks
  • 1947: Reed Nilsen, C, Provo High, Round 16, No. 136 to Detroit Lions
    Ralph Olsen, DE, West High, Round 32, No. 297 to Green Bay Packers
  • 1944: Bob Sneddon, HB, Ogden High, Round 10, No. 94 to Washington Redskins
  • 1942: Mac Speedie, E, South High, Round 15, No. 135 to Detroit Lions
    Garth Chamberlain, OG, Jordan High, Round 17, No. 151 to Pittsburgh Steelers
  • 1941: Joe Aguirre, E, Ogden High, Round 11, No. 100 to Washington Redskins
  • 1938: Paul McDonough, E/HB, East High, Round 9, No. 74 to Pittsburgh Pirates