Seattle • The opening kickoff sails over the head of Tampa Bay’s returner and Seattle Seahawks rookie Cody Barton completes his dash to the end zone, where he raises his arms to exhort the crowd and slaps hands with fans in the front row.
The former Utah linebacker’s job description seems enviable. He runs down the field on kickoffs and backs up one of the NFL’s most durable players, ex-Utah State star Bobby Wagner.
Barton’s limited role is quite a departure, though, from last season, when he played every meaningful defensive snap for the Utes and led the team in tackles as Utah won its first Pac-12 South championship. That’s how he joined Ute safety Marquise Blair, now a Seattle starter, in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. They became the first two Utah defensive players ever drafted by one team in the same year, and the first Utes taken by the Seahawks since offensive tackle Jack Campbell in 1982.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham accurately predicted that Blair could go as high as the second round last April. But to have him and Barton enter the league together? He didn't see that coming.
“You never know,” Whittingham said. “It's weird how that works. We can have scouts from 10 different teams talk to me about a certain player and show huge interest, and then he gets drafted by a team that never even had a conversation with any of us.”
Blair and Barton have helped the Seahawks (7-2) become one of the NFL’s surprise teams, although their schedule will become markedly tougher in the remaining seven games. They’ll face six opponents with winning records. The first of two games vs. 8-0 San Francisco comes on the road Monday night.
The two ex-Utes are part of one of the most Utah-centric teams in NFL history, from a statewide perspective. The active roster includes Wagner, defensive end Ziggy Ansah of BYU and receiver John Ursua of Cedar High School, via Hawaii. Seattle's practice squad lists former Ute cornerback Brian Allen and Bryan Mone, a defensive tackle from Highland High, via Michigan.
The defensive pairing with Barton is “like we're still in Utah,” Blair said last Sunday, after a 40-34 overtime defeat of Tampa Bay. “I'm glad they got us both.”
Blair has started the last three games and made a total of 22 tackles, including nine solo stops (plus a forced fumble near the goal line) in a win over Atlanta. He credits Ute defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, who works with the safeties, for “a great job of coaching me.”
Asked about the transition from Utah to the NFL, Blair said, “I wouldn't say it's easy; it's never easy. It's a whole different scheme. But I feel like [Scalley] made me ready for it.”
Blair was the 11th Ute defensive back in 13 years to be drafted into the league, following success stories such as Eric Weddle, Sean Smith, Eric Rowe and Marcus Williams — all second-rounders, like Blair.
Barton rose above expectations during his Utah career, as “a self-made player,” by Whittingham’s description. When the Seahawks drafted Barton, coach Pete Carroll told him to be ready to contribute on special teams, and he’s doing so. Barton has made four tackles in the las three games, including a one-armed corralling of Tampa Bay’s T.J. Logan on a kickoff return.
In a linebackers meeting room with veterans K.J. Wright and Wagner, Barton is “just learning and observing,” he said. “In Utah, they teach you hard work and discipline. Those same, basic fundamentals … are what's here.”
Barton's brother Jackson, an offensive tackle, was drafted by Indianapolis in the seventh round and is a member of the Colts' practice squad. Blair and Barton reunited last weekend with former teammate Matt Gay, Tampa Bay's kicker, and will see punter Mitch Wishnowsky in San Francisco on Monday.
Utah’s 2019 roster may provide a school-record number of draftees; the program’s high is eight in the 2017 draft. Top prospects include cornerback Jaylon Johnson (a junior), defensive linemen Leki Fotu, Bradlee Anae and John Penisini, running back Zach Moss, offensive tackle Darrin Paulo, safety Julian Blackmon, linebacker Francis Bernard and quarterback Tyler Huntley.
UCLA AT NO. 8 UTAH
When • Saturday, Nov. 16, 6 p.m.
TV • Ch. 13