Utah football: Panthers once again go to Utah well for talent
With Star Lotulelei still on the board, the Carolina Panthers took all of 30 seconds to announce they were snagging him with their first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
There was no need for a debate. The Panthers had been to the well often enough to know the water was good.
Lotulelei was the first defensive tackle the Panthers have ever selected in the first round, but the fourth Ute they have drafted, joining offensive lineman Jordan Gross (first round, No. 8, 2003) and receiver Steve Smith (third round, 74th overall, 2001). Defensive back R.J. Stanford was taken in the seventh round (223rd overall) in 2010 before moving on to Miami.
Other Utah players who have had stints in Carolina are receiver Kevin Dyson (1998) and defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu (2002).
So, what gives? How did Utah, a school still striving to make its mark in a BCS league, become a feeder school for an NFC South squad?
Manny Hendrix, who serves as Utah's director of athletic relations, said Carolina's front-office personnel know what they are going to get when they draft a Utah player.
He saw that recently when Carolina reps came to watch Lotulelei work out. At the same time, Smith, who was in town to receive an award, was working out at Utah's facility.
The Panthers were surprised to see Smith, but the chance meeting in the presence of Lotulelei also served as a juxtaposition of past success with Utah athletes and a possible future.
"They know how Utah prepares its athletes and they know what they are going to get," Hendrix said. "They know the guys' work ethics and they know they are going to be well-prepared. When they were here, they talked about how much they liked Star. Smith told them, too, 'You're going to get a good one.' "
While there is a lot that is random in the way organizations build their NFL teams with acquisitions depending on needs, draft positions and salaries when a program has success with a player, there is a tendency to go back to that school time and time again.
Carolina officials downplayed the trend, noting three different general managers have presided over the drafts of Utah players. But Charlie Dayton, the Panthers' director of communications, said Carolina has had a positive experience with Utah players.
"Not only have they excelled on the field, but Steve and Jordan have been most active in the community," he said.
While the Panthers have some high-profile Utes, Carolina isn't the only team tapping the Utah well. Miami and Pittsburgh are other organizations that have rosters peppered with Utes.
Pittsburgh has drafted 11 players from Utah, including Chris Kemoeatu in the sixth round in 2005 and Stevenson Sylvester in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Miami has drafted nine Utah players, including Paul Soliai in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, Sean Smith in the second round of the 2009 draft and Koa Misi in the second round of the 2010 draft.
Miami's current roster also includes cornerback R.J. Stanford and defensive end Derrick Shelby. Offensive lineman Sam Brenner has joined the Dolphins as a free agent, and return specialist Reggie Dunn has joined Pittsburgh as a free agent.
Miami general manager Jeff Ireland said Utah has a good reputation among the pros for turning out NFL-ready players.
"They are well-coached and they have big upsides," he said. "They develop their players well there, and you know what you are going to get. As a result, they are able to make the adjustment to the NFL pretty quickly."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham believes the Utes' success keeps interest in the program on the radar as well, even as it is trying to adjust to a major step up in conference competition.
"We've had a lot of success with Utah players there," he said of Carolina. "Hopefully they know our players are going to work hard and be prepared to play."
As for Lotulelei, Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said there couldn't be a better place than Charlotte for the big-time player who has little need for attention.
He believes Charlotte is just the kind of place in which Lotulelei will thrive, on the field and off it.
"Can you imagine if he was in a big market like New York?" Sitake said. "Charlotte is a good fit, a good market for him. He is married, and he doesn't care about the spotlight or attention, and that is the kind of mentality they have. They'll let him do his work and stay out of his way."
More Utah-NFL connections
Utah's Pittsburgh draftees (round)
1938 • Paul McDonough (9th)
1942 • Floyd Spendlove (8th)
1948 • Tally Stevens (22nd)
1954 • Don Rydalch (19th)
1958 • Everett Jones (21st)
1961 • Terry Nofsinger (17th)
1965 • Roy Jefferson (2nd)
1986 • Erroll Tucker (5th)
1996 • Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala (6th)
2005 • Chris Kemoeatu (6th)
2010 • Stevenson Sylvester (5th)
Utah's Miami draftees (round)
1969 • Norman McBride (4th)
1981 • Steve Folsom (10th)
1982 • Steve Clark (9th)
1990 • Scott Mitchell (4th)
2006 • Paul Soliai (4th)
2009 • Sean Smith (2nd)
2010 • Koa Misi (2nd)
Where Utes have gone since '03
2003 • Lauvale Sape, Buffalo, 6th round
2003 • Jordan Gross, Carolina, 1st round
2005 • Jonathan Fanene, Cincinnati, 7th round
2005 • Sione Pouha, New York Jets, 3rd round
2005 • Chris Kemoeatu, Pittsburgh, 6th round
2005 • Alex Smith, San Francisco, 1st round
2005 • Paris Warren, Tampa Bay, 7th round
2006 • Quinton Ganther, Tennessee, 7th round
2006 • Spencer Toone, Tennessee, 7th round
2006 • Paul Soliai, Miami, 4th round
2009 • Sean Smith, Miami, 2nd round
2009 • Paul Kruger, Baltimore, 2nd round
2009 • Freddie Brown, Cincinnati, 7th round
2009 • Brice McCain, Houston, 6th round
2010 • Robert Johnson, Tennessee, 5th round
2010 • Koa Misi, Miami, 2nd round
2010 • Zane Beadles, Denver, 2nd round
2010 • David Reed, Baltimore, 5th round
2010 • Stevenson Sylvester, Pittsburgh, 5th round
2010 • R.J. Stanford, Carolina, 7th round
2011 • Caleb Schlauderaff, Green Bay, 6th round
2011 • Brandon Burton, Minnesota, 5th round
2012 • Tony Bergstrom, Oakland, 3rd round
Utah's Carolina draft connections
2001 • Steve Smith,3rd round
2003 • Jordan Gross,1st round
2010 • R.J. Stanford,7th round
2013 • Star Lotulelei,1st round