Utah's win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl may earn some of Utah's players more than exposure and respect, it could earn them large NFL salaries.
The dramatic 31-17 upset of the Crimson Tide in New Orleans not only showed the Utes could play with the nation's top teams, but also showed individually the Utes could hold their own against highly regarded talent.
Now, some believe that several Utes, including quarterback Brian Johnson, receiver Freddie Brown, defensive end Paul Kruger and corner Sean Smith, will go higher in the NFL Draft or get more serious considerations by NFL teams than previously thought based on Utah's dominating Sugar Bowl performance.
In 2004, Alex Smith enjoyed all kinds of hype and exposure as the quarterback on Utah's undefeated, BCS-busting team and was eventually the first player taken in the 2005 NFL Draft. Utah's recent BCS success will help current Utes with pro aspirations, some predict. Just as the nation has seemingly discovered the Utes with the win as critics and naysayers have turned into Utah supporters, so too has Utah's individual talent been revealed.
Who wouldn't want a guy like Kruger, who spent as much time in Alabama's territory as 'Bama quarterback John Parker Wilson, or be intrigued by Johnson, Utah's winningest quarterback who picked apart Alabama's secondary with an accurate arm and remained calm in such a hostile atmosphere?
Kruger and Smith, juniors who may enter the 2009 NFL Draft, are considered solid first-round picks in several draft projections.
"One of the biggest questions scouts have is can these players play against the best, and how will they respond when they play against superior athletes, and they answered that question," said agent Ken Vierra, who is representing receiver Brent Casteel. "When the scouts are sitting there watching the Sugar Bowl and it's Alabama and they're thinking, 'I'm watching Alabama and these guys are doing this to Alabama,' for some scouts, that has a real impact."
Kruger, Smith and offensive lineman Zane Beadles all asked for NFL evaluations to see where they'd fall in the 2009 draft. Beadles is staying for his senior year, while Kruger and Smith must declare their intentions by Jan. 15.
Smith, at home in Pasadena, Calif., said he will wait until he returns to Salt Lake City next week to discuss the situation with coach Kyle Whittingham.
"I've been celebrating too much to think about it too much yet," he said.
Smith said getting his degree and improving himself on the field are reasons that might make him stay.
"There is that whole living the senior experience your last year, too," he said.
Many NFL draft analysts believe juniors should be projected in the top 40 to make coming out early a financially sound decision.
Sports Illustrated 's Tony Pauline projects Smith as a first-round pick, citing his 6-foot-3, 214-pound size and versatility as strong suits, and projects Kruger as a late first-round/high second-round pick. ESPN's Todd McShay has both players going in the top 42.
Both Kruger and Smith caught the NFL's attention based on their injury-free, all-conference award winning seasons. The victory over Alabama makes them even hotter commodities. Kruger didn't get his highly anticipated matchup against Alabama lineman and Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith, who was suspended for the game, but still excelled with five tackles. Smith, matched up with Alabama's top receiver and likely future NFL star in Julio Jones, had five tackles and a forced fumble.
Performances such as those validate the assumptions that Utah's players will do well at the next level.
"Utah is an underrated team, and that win against Alabama can only help some of their draft prospects," said Chris Steuber, a draft analyst for Scout.com.
Even so, John Pease, Utah's newly hired defensive line coach who spent 19 years as an NFL assistant, cautions putting too much stock into one bowl game, no matter how much attention it's bringing the Utes.
"When teams are looking at players, they're going to do cutups of different basic skills, they're going to be looking at a lot of games," he said. "Others weigh the combine a lot more. One game isn't going to make that much of a difference."
Of course, as Utah's newly appointed coach, Pease admits he has a personal interest in Utah's defenders and hopes they stay.
"I believe I can help him with some things," he said of Kruger.
In a way, the Sugar Bowl win may help the seniors even more than the underclassmen, since they don't have the option of another year to prove themselves. Vierra said Johnson's poise against Alabama's stingy defense and the way Brown caught 12 catches for 125 yards and hung onto the ball as he took big hits will only help them.
"They have a much better chance to get drafted or make a team," he said.
As seniors, they have little to lose in chasing the NFL dream. At the worst, they would make the rookie minimum of $310,000 if they make a team in 2009.
The decision for Smith and Kruger is more difficult. Should they ride the wave of hype into the NFL or wait a year?
If they stay, they could get their degrees, enjoy another year and possibly better their draft positions. If they stay they also run the risk of getting hurt, having a poor season individually or slipping in the draft if the Utes don't do well as a team causing them to be overlooked.
There are plenty of stories of athletes who leave college early and bomb because they aren't prepared for the NFL, but there are many too of players who stayed and in hindsight might have been better off leaving early. Former USC quarterback Matt Leinart didn't jump to the NFL after his Heisman-trophy winning season and slipped to 10th in the 2006 draft. Last year, Miami defensive end Calais Campbell was projected as an early pick but fell all the way to No. 50 after the Hurricanes struggled to a 5-7 finish in 2007, and his own performances were inconsistent.
Utah's defense should be good next season, but with new coaches, a new quarterback and new receivers, how the Utes will do as a team is a big question and it's debatable how it could affect players' draft status.
What isn't debatable is that the Utes are riding high after the Sugar Bowl win and the rewards could be sweet, both in respect and in their bank accounts.
"It has been an amazing time," Smith said. "To be the only undefeated team and dominate like we did, we make a strong case for the national championship."
NFL experts believe Paul Kruger and Sean Smith could be first-round picks. Here is a look at some of the draft picks from 2008 and the contracts they signed:
No. 1 » Jake Long, OT, Michigan, Miami Dolphins: $30 million guaranteed, $57.7 million total
No. 10 » Jerod Mayo, OLB, Tennessee, New England Patriots: $14 million guaranteed, $19 million total
No. 20 » Aqib Talib, CB, Kansas, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: $8.6 million guaranteed, $14 million total
No. 30 » Dustin Keller, TE, Purdue, New York Jets: $6 million guaranteed, $12 million total
No. 40 » Tracy Porter, CB, Indiana, New Orleans Saints: $2.5 million guaranteed, $4.3 million total
No. 50 » Calais Campbell, DE, Miami, Arizona Cardinals: $1.8 million guaranteed, $3.5 million total
The diploma » Take advantage of a free college education and get a degree
Improve skills » Both Smith and Kruger could improve their abilities and strength with another offseason
Improve draft position » They're good now, but another good season could make them even higher picks
No better time than now » Cash in on the Sugar Bowl exposure and momentum
Don't risk falling in draft » A poor season or injuries could cause them to fall in the next draft
Play first, education later » If they go, there is nothing stopping them from getting a degree later