Utah wanted the Rose Bowl bid that accompanied a Pac-12 football title last season, but the Utes' loss to Washington in the conference championship game came with its own reward. Leki Fotu stayed in school for another year.
NFL teams would have taken defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Fotu in this week’s draft, but the players decided they had more to do at Utah.
They played major roles as first-team All-Pac-12 players in a history-making season, as the Utes won their first Pac-12 South title. Utah’s 10-3 loss in the conference title game definitely played into Fotu’s decision. “We didn’t get the outcome we wanted, so I thought it was only right to come back and try to go there again and win it this year,” he said during the Utes’ spring practice.
Anae similarly is motivated by what he labels “unfinished business,” including the opportunity to graduate in December. “Never thought I could do it,” he said. “I really wasn't a 'school guy.' [But] here at this program, you go through the system and it's kind of hard not to succeed, especially with school.”
If they had entered the NFL draft as juniors, Anae and Fotu likely would have fit into a top tier of players with safety Marquise Blair, contending to become the first former Ute selected. Along with running back Zack Moss and defensive back Julian Blackmon, they went through the NFL evaluation process and stayed at Utah, hoping to improve their draft grades.
Fotu was surprised by his evaluation in the third or fourth round. “I thought it was pretty high for me,” he said, “but I knew I was capable of doing better.” Anae was mildly disappointed with a similar rating.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham credited the players for making informed decisions, and Fotu appreciated Whittingham's approach. “He talked me through it,” Fotu said. “He didn't really [influence] my decision, he was really helpful with it. He helped me through the process of really understanding, if I leave or if I stay. After that, I just felt comfortable.”
The timing may be be better for Anae and Fotu in 2020, anyway. Oakland general manager Mike Mayock has said the 2019 group of defensive tackles and edge rushers is the best in a decade, according to ESPN.
So they will become highly regarded prospects next April, after anchoring one of the top defensive lines in the country. Fotu, from Herriman High School, is another in Utah's series of run-stopping tackles, with more athletic ability than that job description suggests. He posted three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss last season. He already has learned a lot from Ute defensive tackles coach Sione Po'uha, who played the position for seven seasons in the NFL and joined the staff in December.
Anae, from Hawaii, is a pass-rushing force as an end, having led the Pac-12 with eight sacks in 2018, while ranking third overall and first among linemen with 15.5 tackles for loss in 14 games.
In the NFL evaluation, “I learned a lot about how I can improve with certain things … little things that might not be harped on here,” Anae said.
The players will watch the draft coverage, see at least a few teammates selected (others will sign as free agents) and picture themselves in that position next April.
And they will spend this week as typical college students, preparing for semester final exams and getting a break from football, after winter workouts and spring practice. Anae and Fotu soon will resume preparations for their senior seasons. They will hope to make more history in Utah’s football program and, like any other college graduates, increase their earning potential.