Four Utes deferred their NFL dreams to pursue a Pac-12 title. They’ll get another shot at Washington.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune) Utah Utes running back Zack Moss (2) runs past Brigham Young Cougars defensive back Austin Lee (2) as Brigham Young University hosts the University of Utah, NCAA football in Provo, Utah, on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.

The people wearing purple and gold Saturday in Seattle are major reasons why four of Utah's best football players stayed in school for their senior seasons.

If not for Washington’s 10-3 victory over Utah in last November’s Pac-12 championship game, sending the Huskies to the Rose Bowl, who knows? Running back Zack Moss and defensive stars Bradlee Anae, Leki Fotu and Julian Blackmon may have entered the NFL draft, figuring they had done all they could in college.

The Huskies left them with more to accomplish. And they've improved this season, in the judgment of coach Kyle Whittingham, while positioning the No. 9 Utes (7-1) for another Rose Bowl possibility.


When • Saturday, 2 p.m. MST

TV • Ch. 13

Asked this week if those players have boosted their NFL stock, Whittingham said, “If I’m making the evaluation, then the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ They’ve all positioned themselves better.”

Junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who almost certainly will enter the 2020 draft, is Utah’s top NFL prospect. He’s projected to go in the second round. The four who chose to stay in 2019 should be taken somewhere in the middle rounds.

Utah clearly has profited even more from their contributions, while Moss has become the school’s career rushing leader and Anae is chasing the all-time sacks record. Fotu and Blackmon recently were ranked Nos. 1-2 among Pac-12 defensive players by Pro Football Focus analysts, who grade every play. Utah’s defense, led up front by Fotu, is No. 1 nationally against the run and No. 3 overall in yards allowed.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu (99) tries to block BYU quarterback Zach Wilson's pass in August 2019.

The anticipation of Saturday’s visit to Washington is reminding them why they stayed. The game is “a personal one,” Fotu said, “especially for us seniors and those that played last year in those two games” vs. the Huskies.

Of the four players, Moss is the only one whose senior year has not fully gone as he hoped. His shoulder injury in the second quarter at USC in September may have cost the Utes their only defeat, and it kept him out of the next game.

“It’s been a tough [season]; I’ve been really battle-tested,” Moss said, “but I’m just thankful to have each and every day. It could be worse, so I just count my blessings.”

Moss, who missed the last five games of 2018 with a knee injury, has looked fast, creative and powerful. He has rushed for 728 yards, despite missing the equivalent of three games while sidelined by the shoulder injury or being rested during blowouts. His 32-yard touchdown run vs. Arizona State gave him the school rushing yardage record; he added career records for rushing touchdowns and 100-yard games last weekend vs. California.

Pursuing the yardage record (he now has 3,379 yards) played “a small part” in Moss' decision to stay, he said. “I'm not really one for individual goals. It was good to get that, though, to get something I really wanted to do: put myself somewhere in this school [history]. But nothing will really satisfy me most until we get back to that Pac-12 championship game and come out on the right side of it.”

Watching Moss break that record inspired Anae, who has 24 career sacks (including seven this season) and needs six for the school record. “I was getting emotional for him,” Anae said, “but I could only imagine later in the season, if or when I do break the all-time record, it's going to be an emotional night. That type of feeling is special. … That's one of the main reasons to come back – and not only do that, but have another shot at the title.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Utah Bradlee Anae (6) strips the ball from Northern Illinois quarterback Ross Bowers (12) in September 2019.

Coaches say Anae has become a more complete player as a senior, beyond his elite pass-rushing ability. In Blackmon’s case, moving from cornerback to safety has given him better NFL credentials.

Blackmon failed to make plays on two touchdown passes at USC, where he was in good position each time. Otherwise, he has thrived in coverage and as a tackler. The Pro Football Focus grades validated him in the sense that “other people see it, too,” he said.

Another gauge will come in Seattle for Blackmon and the Utes’ other pro prospects, as they try to impress the Huskies.


Season summaries for Utah's four players who considered entering the 2019 NFL draft:

Bradlee Anae, defensive end – Anae recorded three-sack games vs. Northern Illinois and Arizona State, and needs six sacks for the school career record. He’s among 20 semifinalists for the Bednarik Award as the country’s top defensive player, after being named the organization’s national player of the week.

Julian Blackmon, safety – Blackmon is the team’s No. 4 tackler, besides having two interceptions (returning one for a touchdown vs. BYU) and breaking up four passes. Blackmon may have played safety earlier in his career, if not for Utah’s being loaded at that position.

Leki Fotu, defensive tackle – Fotuy is the Pac-12′s highest-graded defensive player by Pro Football Focus and has seven tackles for loss, even though his job description is mostly to occupy blockers and free his teammates.

Zack Moss, running back – Moss has rushed for 728 yards in seven games, becoming Utah’s career leader, while missing the equivalent of three games due to a shoulder injury and being rested. He’s one of 20 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award, given to the country’s most outstanding player.