Chase Hansen’s move from safety to linebacker strengthened Utah’s defense and turned the 2018 season into a showcase for both Hansen and Marquise Blair.
Those players performed so well that they would have competed to become Utah’s first player picked in this week’s NFL draft, if not for the back injury that kept Hansen from going through the predraft testing process. Some degree of mystery surrounds Blair, who could be taken anywhere from the second round Friday to the middle rounds Saturday. Hansen’s future is even less clear, because NFL teams care about performances in the evaluation period that he missed. One mock draft lists him as “Mr. Irrelevant,” the last of the 254 players picked in the seven-round draft.
Hansen “is kind of behind the 8-ball a little bit, with not being able to test for the pros, because he would have tested off the charts,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Blair missed the last month of his junior year of 2017 with a leg injury, but returned to play consistently last season, when he made the All-Pac-12 second team. Playing Hansen’s former strong safety position, Blair showed the ability to play inside against the run and cover receivers down the sideline.
He's known as a ferocious hitter, a trait that worked against him when he was ejected for targeting against Washington in September and UCLA in October. Routine tackling is among the skills he'll have to improve in the NFL. Blair is the No. 92-ranked player, according to longtime personnel evaluator Gil Brandt, making him a potential pick late in the third round.
“A lot of teams like him; at least, that’s what they expressed to me,” Whittingham said. “Some people have him as high as the second round. But it’s hard to predict. All you have to do is have one team really like you to have a good draft outcome.”
That’s also true for Hansen, who will have to rely on scouts’ appreciating his play on the field and the belief that he’s healthy. He disclosed at Utah’s Pro Day in late March that he played the second half of the season with a herniated disc in his back, a separate issue from the hip injury that caused him to miss the Holiday Bowl vs. Northwestern. Hansen had surgery in January.
“Any issue he's had is now repaired,” said his father, Brian.
Hansen was hoping to work out for NFL teams, even asking his spinal surgeon if he could just get another shot instead of undergoing a procedure, followed by lengthy rehabilitation. But “some pretty strong advice” persuaded him to have surgery, with the goal of being healthy for training camp in July.
Hansen this week was voted the Utah athletic department’s Male Student-Athlete of the Year in the annual Crimson Carpet Awards (gymnast MyKayla Skinner was the female honoree), recognizing two athletes “who consistently performed at a high level throughout the 2018-19 season, raising the bar for all other competitors in their sport.”
Playing through his back trouble, Hansen led the Utes with 114 tackles through 13 games, then was overtaken by linebacker Cody Barton in the Holiday Bowl.
“He'll be healthy for camp, bottom line,” his father said. “He wouldn't have done anything different. He was so committed to Utah. His goal was to get Utah over the top.”
Hansen's season ended in a 10-3 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 championship game. Beyond Hansen's missing the testing opportunities in the NFL Scouting Combine and Utah's Pro Day, his age could be a factor in the draft. Hansen will turn 26 in May.
NFL teams “all love the way he plays,” Brian Hansen said. “He’s a top 100 player, but you’ve got to have the right opportunity. … He’ll make money with his job, no matter what he decides to do. He just has a lifelong dream of playing in the NFL.”
All nine of Utah’s senior starters in 2018 are expected to be drafted or have possible free-agent opportunities: safeties Corrion Ballard and Blair, linebackers Cody Barton and Hansen, punter Mitch Wishnowsky, kicker Matt Gay and offensive linemen Jackson Barton, Jordan Agasiva and Lo Falemaka.
All times Mountain
Thursday – Round 1, 6 p.m.
Friday – Rounds 2-3, 5 p.m.
Saturday – Round 4-7, 10 a.m.