Accomplished cornerback Jaylon Johnson will not be playing for the Utes in the Alamo Bowl, complicating matters against Texas for the back end of Utah’s defense, which already will be missing injured safeties Julian Blackmon and R.J. Hubert.
Johnson, a junior, is not hurt. He’s turned his full attention to preparing for draft evaluations by the NFL, a turn that has become increasingly common among college players with intentions of going pro.
Not all NFL prospects bail on their teams in such a manner. Most stay and play. On the Utes alone, there are a couple of fistfuls of players who have a decent shot at making the NFL.
Zack Moss said he’ll play. It is presumed other stars such as Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu will play, Tyler Huntley and Francis Bernard likely will play.
Unless they don’t.
And if they don’t, they don’t.
Kyle Whittingham seemed almost nonchalant when he said recently he leaves these calls up to individual players, probably because he has no choice. He said he advises them and leaves it at that. He could cast a dark shadow over guys who decide to go a different way, essentially etching a scarlet letter into their foreheads, besmirching them as they leave the program, if he wanted to.
Smart for him to let it be.
Smart for fans to let it be, too.
Some see the trend of highly touted seniors and juniors with plans to go pro declining to play in a bowl game as a betrayal, a sign of disloyalty toward programs that deserve better, that have helped position these guys for their leap to the next level.
How dare they leave their teammates in the lurch, ducking out down a back alley in a time of need? If they’re not going to get out on the field for their team, do battle with them, same as it ever was, they should be shamed or ostracized at least, and pay back some of their scholarship money at most.
That’s easier for those with nothing at risk to ask or to demand.
Here’s a more relevant question: What happens if Johnson chooses to play against Texas in this last hour and then blows out a knee? Where would that loyalty get him at that point?
Blackmon tore a knee ligament against Oregon, in a game that was for the Pac-12 title. Had he or anyone else sat out that contest, having determined that he’d already proved his value as a player to pro scouts, it would be reasonable to see him as a chump, a deserter, a defector.
But … for the Alamo Bowl? Against the 7-5 Longhorns?
A man’s got to do what a man sees fit to do in a situation like that.
That’s exactly what Johnson — and others around the country like him — is doing. Matriculating to whatever comes next now.
And it’s OK.
Moss plans to play, as do the other Utah seniors.
And that’s OK, too. Perhaps more than OK. Perhaps preferable, more honorable.
One man’s honor is another man’s roll of the dice.
But Moss and others may also see reward, they may feel a need to further cement in the minds of NFL coaches their promise as pro prospects. Even for seniors, even if they’ll play in the Senior Bowl and/or participate at the NFL Combine, where pro evaluators get more intimate looks at their physical and mental capacities, there are only so many chances to impress.
Johnson has already made his mark. If he wants to limit exposure to a last-minute injury in a bowl game that’s supposed to be a prize for the regular-season performance of the players, for the players, but otherwise doesn’t carry all that much meaning, like Whittingham indicated, it’s his call, his prerogative.
Has he — and others like him — turned his back on his teammates? Is he double-crossing them? Leaving them before the work is done?
No. No. Maybe.
But the way Johnson looks at it, his work with the Utes is done.
His own work is not done.
It now centers on spending the next four months, including all of December, fine-tuning his strength, speed, and skills. Whether some scouts would be more impressed by his staying with his team straight through the bowl game is unknown.
But if he did get hurt, who’d be impressed then?
Jaylon Johnson is a Ute, through and through. He’ll be a Ute when Utah practices for and plays without him in its bowl game.
And he’ll be a Ute when he’s a high draft pick, when he’s making millions of dollars in the NFL, proud to have come from the program that helped make him what he is, proud perhaps to give back to that program praise and money and other kinds of support of his choosing.
That will be his proud prerogative, too, long after the Alamo Bowl, whatever happens in it, fades from memory.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.