With little fanfare, Utah has become a relevant player in the recruitment and drafting of big-time high school football talent. If not exactly a hotbed, it is the next best thing and is trending up, steeply.

“The biggest reason is that people in Utah are pretty high achievers. They’re pretty driven, whether it’s football or anything else. The kids get motivated and parents support them.”

—  Corner Canyon High football coach Eric Kjar

Jackson Powers-Johnson, who graduated from Corner Canyon High and played center for the University of Oregon, is expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick later this month. The Rams have visited his high school to make inquiries about him. Two other Utah natives — Zach Wilson, another Corner Canyon graduate, and Penei Sewell, a Desert Hills High graduate, were taken with the second and seventh overall picks of the 2021 draft, respectively. Jaxson Dart, still another Corner Canyon alum, is a potential first-round pick in the 2025 draft.

In the last 11 drafts, 10 Utah-born players were chosen in the first three rounds, the others being first-rounders Garett Bolles (2017), Star Lotulelei (2013), second rounders Nate Orchard (2015), Xavier Su’a-Filo (2014), and third rounders Brady Christensen (2021), Julian Blackmon (2020), Cody Barton (2019) and Nick Vigil (2016). Others, such as Dalton Schultz (fourth round, 2018), Jaylen Warren (undrafted, 2022) and Puka Nacua (fifth round, 2023) should have been drafted in the first two rounds.

“Utah football has elevated quite a bit. It was good football when I started but I’ve seen it grow a lot,” says Corner Canyon head coach Eric Kjar, who began coaching football in 2004.

Pro Football Reference confirms as much. The website produced a list of players who were born in Utah and logged game time in the NFL. It clearly demonstrates how Utahns’ football stock has risen. (Note: It does not include players who attended a Utah high school but were not born in Utah.)

  • 30 players 1953-1983 (30 years)
  • 29 players 1985-2006 (22 years)
  • 31 players 2007-2019 (13 years)
  • 30 players 2020-23 (4 years)

Following the 2021 draft, NFL Communications listed Utah as No. 2 among states with the most high school players drafted per capita. In 2022, On3.com studied the results of the previous five drafts and concluded that Utah ranked No. 9 per capita during that period.

“Utah is home to some of the most underrated high school football in the country,” wrote Jeremy Crabtree of On3. “And after seeing the state land on the list for the most draft picks per capita, maybe it’s time to give Utah more credit. For having less than 1% of the population, the state has consistently sent players to the next level ….”

In 2022, 1033thegoat.com listed Utah No. 6 among states with the most NFL players per capita, with 25 (one NFL player per 130,865 people).

Utah freshman quarterback Isaac Wilson prepares to throw during spring camp at the Utes Football Spring Ball at Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center
Utah freshman quarterback Isaac Wilson prepares to throw during spring camp at the Utes Football Spring Ball at Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has liked what he's seen from the former Corner Canyon High star. | Eli Rehmer, Utah Athletics

As you might expect, the rise of Utah prep football is reflected in college recruiting. Saturday Down South, an online college football outlet, rated Utah No. 5 in the country per capita for producing FBS signees, with 35 out of 8,638 players (a ratio of 1:247). And this was nine years ago. Utah’s stock has continued to climb since then. Corner Canyon alone saw seven of its players sign Division I letters of intent in February, four with Power Four schools. Eight current Corner Canyon players already have Division I offers.

“High school players in Utah are getting recruited more than ever,” says Fred Whittingham, the University of Utah’s recruiting coordinator.

The question is why? Coaches point to the increase of the state’s population, from 2.25 million in 2000 to 3.4M in 2023, but that still ranks Utah only 30th out of 50 states. More specifically, Whittingham and Kjar note the relatively large population of Polynesians.

“The biggest reason is that people in Utah are pretty high achievers,” says Kjar. “They’re pretty driven, whether it’s football or anything else. The kids get motivated and parents support them.”

Related
Why elite football speed is born on the track

“There is really good coaching at the high school level in Utah,” says Whittingham, something that Kjar mentioned as well, along with the availability of camps, and other programs to develop players, the presence of several good Division I programs in the state, and “a lot of big, long tall bodies here in high school, which is an important trend in recruiting.”

Whittingham continues, “There has been a Power Five program in the state since 2011 with increasing success and national exposure (University of Utah). With our success, more Power Five programs have committed to recruiting the state.”

For any of the reasons mentioned above, the talent level of Utah players has simply improved. That’s easier to quantify objectively in other sports. Kjar, who also coaches his school’s track team, recalls that when he began coaching track in 2007 the state qualifying mark for the 100-meter dash was 11.55; now it’s 11.15. In 2010, only four Utah high school sprinters broke 11 seconds, with a best of 10.83; last year 37 sprinters ran sub-11, six under 10.70.

“Utah is home to some of the most underrated high school football in the country. And after seeing the state land on the list for the most draft picks per capita, maybe it’s time to give Utah more credit. For having less than 1% of the population, the state has consistently sent players to the next level.”

—  Jeremy Crabtree of On3.com

Kjar mentions another factor in Utah’s rise in the football world — Twitter and the internet have changed the game for everyone, but especially Utah and other out-of-the-way, sparsely populated states.

“Utah has become a little more national because of Twitter,” says Kjar. “Coaches use Twitter so much for recruiting, and kids post video there. Utah was far away for a lot of recruiters. It was not a place that they went recruiting. It is in the middle of an area not recruited a lot. There are good kids there and now coaches are finding them. Recruiting services and coaches are paying attention to our kids more and more.”

Kjar’s office has turned into a clearinghouse for football talent. In the past few months, he has received visits from then-UCLA head coach Chip Kelly, USC head coach Lincoln Riley and assistants from every Pac-12 school, plus Texas, Notre Dame, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, among others.

Kjar believes there is one position for which Utah is gaining increased notoriety: quarterback. Wilson, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, started off and on for the New York Jets the last three seasons.

Dart starts for Ole Miss after transferring from USC and has been mentioned as a Heisman candidate. Maddux Madsen, a sophomore from American Fork High, starts for Boise State. McCae Hillstead, a sophomore from Skyridge High, shared the starting job at Utah State last season with Cooper Legas, a junior from Orem High.

Devin Brown, a sophomore from Corner Canyon, is listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart at Ohio State. Isaac Wilson, another Corner Canyon product and Zach’s brother, is a freshman at Utah this spring. Cole Hagen, still one more Corner Canyon grad, is competing for a spot at BYU after transferring from Yale. Jake Jensen, a junior from Provo, is a backup at USC. Bryson Barnes, a junior from Milford High, was a some-time starter for Utah and then transferred in the off-season to Utah State.

“You see the quarterback position growing,” says Kjar. “It’s gotten big.”

No matter how you cut it, Utah’s high school football players are earning more and more interest and respect.

Note: Doug Robinson is an assistant track coach for Corner Canyon High.

Mississippi quarterback Jaxson Dart passes against Penn State Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Atlanta.
Mississippi quarterback Jaxson Dart passes against Penn State Saturday, Dec. 30, 2023, in Atlanta. Dart is a Utah high school product. | Brynn Anderson, Associated Press