Ute's Kruger: Nightmare on Bourbon Street
Sophomore defensive end Paul Kruger has asked for an NFL evaluation to not only see how he measures against other pro prospects but also to learn what he needs to work on to make himself a better player in the future.
No need to wait on that evaluation, though; Kruger can judge for himself how he rates when he and the Utes play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2.
Kruger will go against Alabama junior left tackle Andre Smith, who recently won the Outland Trophy for the nation's best interior lineman.
Smith is projected to be an early pick in the 2009 draft if he decides to go pro.
If Kruger can get the best of him, his own stock and reputation could rise so much that going out for the 2009 draft might be a tempting prospect.
"It could be a statement game for him," outgoing Utah defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said. "I've watched quite a bit of tape of Smith and he is a very talented player. He's very worthy of the award, but I like the matchup. It's going to be fun to watch."
Studying Smith on film has impressed Kruger, but he doesn't feel like he is out of his league.
"I respect him a lot," he said. "As far as his size and speed, I've played against guys who have similarities, but as a whole no one has matched up to his abilities. I'm really excited to see what I can do against a competitor like that."
Facing an Outland Trophy winner, being talked about as an early draft pick -- those are all topics of which Kruger never believed he'd be the center way back when he was an All-America quarterback at Timpanogos High in Orem.
How things have changed. The coaches' desire to get him on the field sooner rather than later led them to try him out first at tight end, then defensive end, where the Utes were thin.
Two seasons later he has developed into what he is -- arguably one of the finest defensive players in school history.
At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Kruger has spin and stutter moves that befuddle opponents and make NFL teams take notice.
"He is a dominating player right now," Andersen said. "I don't know if he can get much more improved. He can get better, just because he hasn't had a true offseason with us, but I don't know if he can get much improved."
Kruger says he is "100 percent" committed to returning to the Utes in 2009 and would only consider going in the 2009 draft if he was an early selection. There are some who believe he will be, especially if he gets the better of Smith, a 6-foot-4, 330-pound All-American who has given up just one sack this season.
"If he gets one sack or a couple of hurries it would be huge for him," said one NFL insider who predicted Kruger as a solid first-round pick. "He's ready. He's the kind of player NFL teams dream about. He's got the talent and he's got the mentality, too. He's known as a good guy."
It's that last bit, his mentality, that makes him as valuable to the Utes as anything else. Talent alone is good, but unless a player has the desire and focus to hone it and use it to lead his teammates, then talent will only get an athlete so far. Kruger is one of those guys described as the "complete package." He's a player who not only has talent, but knows how to use it and is smart enough to understand his responsibilities include more than just hunting down quarterbacks.
"He is a tremendous athlete who is very competitive and is a great motivator," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Combine all that with his physical talent, he's one of the best in the country flat out."
Being a leader comes naturally to Kruger, just like the old quarterback skills that allowed him to chuck a tight spiral 60-plus yards after a recent practice.
"My personality is I've always been somebody people look up to, and I strive for that," Kruger said.
Such a commanding position brings respect, but it also brings its own pressure, too, Kruger admits.
"It's definitely something that can weigh on you," he said. "You have this responsibility. Big plays call for big players, and I want to be the guy who can step up and change the momentum or outcome of a game."
He may not have a better chance to be that player than in the Sugar Bowl, against Smith.
"I love the big games like this," Kruger said. "I get up for them, and I want to make something happen."
Paul Kruger, Utah DE
» 6-5, 265, So.
» 56 tackles, 15.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks in 2008
» 7 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles
» 2008 first-team All-MWC
» Sporting News and Scout.team Freshman All-American in 2007
Andre Smith, Alabama OL
» 6-4, 330, Jr.
» 2008 Outland Trophy winner
» Three-year starter
» Allowed 1 sack in 2008
» 2008 All-American selection by several services
Utah (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1), 6 p.m. (Ch. 13), at New Orleans Payout: $17 million