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Gordon Monson: What Kyle Whittingham has built at Utah is feeding NFL teams

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham looks to the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter as the University of Utah faces Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl, NCAA football in San Diego, Calif., on Monday Dec. 31, 2018.

Kyle Whittingham has done a number of notable things leading Utah football, building it into a respectable threat in the Pac-12 nearly every year. How he has done that centers on two words, each of which is and will be on display in this NFL draft.

Recruiting and development.

No duh, right? That’s what decent football programs do.

Whittingham talks nonstop about the importance of recruiting, that it’s the players who win games, in doing so, cheating himself out of credit for the other half of the equation. Both halves, actually.

During a recent teleconference, Utah’s head coach balanced the sum, in part, complimenting his staff while saying: “There are so many good things to say about our assistant coaches and the way they evaluate. That’s really what recruiting boils down to is evaluation. You’ve got to project.”

The fact that the Utes are mastering their R&D the way they have is nothing short of remarkable. They’re not USC, they’re not Oregon, but you wouldn’t know it from the bulk of talent they’re shipping off to the pros.

Utah could have eight or nine players go in this draft. Over the past 10 years, they’ve had 32 players go. They had eight selected in 2017 and that record number could be broken by Saturday afternoon.

Will Whittingham be watching this time around?

“Absolutely,” he said.

Why wouldn’t he?

Somebody/somebodies on the Utah staff is/are spotting the potential in a load of three-star athletes, which at times is a few layers deep, and transforming them into the kinds of players NFL teams not only like, but can count on to make their rosters better. And the more they do that, the more trust is built, in both directions.

Teams figure if they draft a Ute, they’re going to get a player of a certain character, of a certain wherewithal, of a certain toughness, of a certain training. And high school players see what’s going on, too. Like cornerback Jaylon Johnson has indicated, a main reason he came to Utah was because of the track record of sending defensive backs to the league.

Word gets around.

Next thing, the Utes are hauling in even better talent, top-drawer athletes who, if they work hard and listen to the coaches there to teach and motivate them, and chances are they will if they follow Whittingham’s mantra, they have an increased shot at fulfilling their dream of playing in the NFL.

Look at the names in this year’s offerings.

Johnson, Bradlee Anae, Zack Moss, Leki Fotu, Terrell Burgess, Francis Bernard, Julian Blackmon, John Penisini, Javelin Guidry, Josh Nurse, Tyler Huntley.

All of them won’t get drafted, but most of them will.

Johnson is a talented corner on everybody’s board and because his skillset is in such high demand and so highly valued, he’s going early. He could become the best cornerback on any number of NFL teams in short order.

Anae, the Utes’ all-time sacks leader, needs refinement in technique and overall discipline, but he’s quick and he’s durable.

Moss restored hope beyond just his rugged running style that he’s got some speed, after his poor showing at the NFL Combine, clocking a 4.5 40 in a subsequent private workout. What he achieved on the field at Utah speaks loudly, but there are some quality RBs in this draft who will be selected before him.

Burgess is a multi-faceted, multi-talented safety who can tackle. What NFL team doesn’t want that?

Fotu is a mammoth run-stopper at defensive tackle who also has some athleticism and, knock on wood, doesn’t get hurt. Of the 6-foot-5, 330-pound lineman, Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said: “He’s a big, tough guy who I wouldn’t want to mess with, so I don’t.”

Timing was most unfortunate for the Utes and for Blackmon, who tore his ACL in the Pac-12 championship game, but his versatility — he played corner and safety at Utah — and his combo-pack of athleticism and tackling ability has created some interest. Question is, how will his knee heal? And another, how will NFL teams guess it will heal?

Bernard, a former running back who played at BYU before transferring to Utah, has good speed, so important in the modern NFL, and is able to cover ground quickly.

Guidry ran the second-fastest time at the combine, motoring through the 40 in 4.29 seconds. That, by itself, is enough to turn NFL scouts’ heads.

Whether DT Penisini, QB Huntley and DB Nurse get drafted is questionable, but they will get looks in one form or another. So will OT Darrin Paulo and WR Demari Simpkins.

NFL personnel people spend a whole lot of time sorting through, evaluating free-agent candidates. Some of them are considered valuable prospects, and the coming days will determine how valued these five are.

Either way, for the Utes to have 13 viable NFL-type guys in and around a single draft is extraordinary, further evidence that what Whittingham has built and is doing at Utah is beyond notable. It’s remarkable.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.

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