Utah's football team will be among the Pac-12 favorites in 2019, with plenty of returning talent.
The NFL Scouting Combine, starting this week, is a reminder that the Utes will miss some outstanding players.
Nine seniors, counting two kickers, were in Utah’s 24-player starting lineup in 2018. Six were invited to the combine in Indianapolis, making them likely draft choices: linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, offensive tackle Jackson Barton, safety Marquise Blair, kicker Matt Gay and punter Mitch Wishnowsky.
Two years ago, the Utes sent eight players to the combine, including juniors Garett Bolles and Marcus Williams. All eight players were drafted, in a school-record showing. Utah’s 2018 team may have matched or topped that total, but juniors Zack Moss, Leki Fotu, Bradlee Anae and Julian Blackmon chose to play as seniors in the coming season.
Utah’s Pro Day is March 28, when the other senior starters — offensive linemen Jordan Agasiva and Lo Falemaka and safety Corrion Ballard — presumably will work out for NFL scouts. The current Utes will stage spring practice from March 4-April 13. Fotu and Anae have been named defensive captains for the spring, along with quarterback Tyler Huntley and receiver Britain Covey on offense and kicker Chayden Johnston on special teams.
The NFL draft is April 25-27. Also auditioning in Indianapolis are former BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki, Utah State tight end Dax Raymond and Weber State offensive lineman Iosua Opeta.
The on-field schedule for former Utah collegians in Indianapolis:
Friday • Offensive linemen, specialists (Jackson Barton, Iosua Opeta, Matt Gay and Mitch Wishnowsky).
Saturday • Tight ends (Dax Raymond).
Sunday • Linebackers (Sione Takitaki, Chase Hansen and Cody Barton).
Monday • Safeties (Marquise Blair).
A look at the Utes’ combine participants:
After thriving in his move from safety to linebacker as a senior, Hansen missed the Holiday Bowl and withdrew from the Senior Bowl with a reported hip injury. Hansen’s missing the Senior Bowl practices will make the testing in March more important to him.
Hansen is expected to play in the NFL as an outside linebacker, with his coverage skills making him valuable in various packages. He made 22 tackles for loss in basically 12 games last season, being ejected for targeting in the first quarter at Colorado. Amid injuries, he finished his Utah career with 164 solo tackles, tying for seventh in program history.
Hansen is Utah’s highest-ranked prospect, according to draftscout.com, projected for the third or fourth round.
In the friendly rivalry with Hansen, Barton became Utah’s leading tackler for the season, thanks to his Holiday Bowl performance in a loss to Northwestern. Barton finished with 116 tackles in 14 games, including 10.5 tackles for loss.
Barton improved during his four-year Ute career, with his aggressive style making him productive as a senior, when he became a co-captain and team leader. He’s projected as an inside linebacker in the NFL, with a seventh-round grade from draftscout.com.
The Barton family of former Brighton High School athletes should have two selections on the final day of the draft, with each brother expected to go in the seventh round. Jackson Barton (6-foot-7, 308 pounds) “has the size scouts covet,” draftscout.com said, comparing him to Bolles, a first-round pick of Denver in 2017.
Barton made the All-Pac-12 first team as a senior and is remembered at Utah as a steady, durable player.
A junior college transfer, Blair became a two-year starting safety for the Utes. The ability of Blair and Ballard enabled the Ute coaching staff to move Hansen to linebacker.
Blair is known as a big hitter, although that trait resulted in three targeting ejections — including a couple of questionable calls — during his career. Utah often used him as essentially a linebacker, with Ballard as a deep safety. Blair showed good speed in coverage, though.
His weight will be a question; Utah listed him at 195 pounds, but he reportedly weighed 180 during the Senior Bowl testing.
The issue for Gay and Wishnowsky will be whether an NFL team invests a draft pick in a kicker or punter.
Gay is ranked the No. 2 kicker by draftscout.com after making a school-record eight field goals of 50-plus yards in his two-year career. After winning the Lou Groza Award as a junior, Gay didn’t get as many field-goal opportunities during most of the 2018 season. But he kicked a school-record six field goals in a victory over Oregon, part of his streak of 21 successful kicks.
Gay also handled kickoff duties as a senior, replacing Wishnowsky.
If a team sufficiently values a punter, Wishnowsky could become one of the first Utes taken in this draft, with draftscout.com projecting him for the fourth or fifth round as the top-ranked punter.
A three-time All-American and the only three-time finalist for the Ray Guy Award (he was the 2016 winner), Wishnowsky averaged 45.2 yards as senior. He was especially adept at placing punts his punts around the 10-yard line — as he did three straight times in the fourth quarter at Washington State.