The biggest one-school takeover of the Senior Bowl all-star football game in recent history began in January, when four outstanding juniors announced they would keep playing for Utah in 2019.
So it was not surprising last week when the express-mail deliveries of invitations arrived in Salt Lake City, addressed to defensive linemen Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu, running back Zack Moss and safety Julian Blackmon. The packages kept coming. The additions of linebacker Francis Bernard and safety Terrell Burgess will give the Utes a presence in the 71st Senior Bowl that’s historically topped by only some Alabama and Auburn teams of the 1980s — and that’s factoring in a former regional flavor of the game played annually in Mobile, Ala.
“It's a loaded football team,” Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl's executive director, said of Utah. “There's a ton of talent. … All six of those guys earned it.”
The Utes could have a seventh selection in January, once junior cornerback Jaylon Johnson declares for the NFL draft, as expected. As a college graduate, Johnson would be eligible to play.
NO. 7 UTAH AT ARIZONA
When • Saturday, 8 p.m. MT
TV • FS1
The Senior Bowl, played the weekend prior to the Super Bowl, is the most prestigious all-star game. NFL teams provide the coaching staffs and the week becomes in essence a pro football convention of coaches, scouts and executives. The event’s theme is “The draft starts in Mobile.”
With his two decades of NFL experience, Nagy has assembled a nationwide scouting staff that makes player selection more scientific than in the old days, partly explaining the Alabama/Auburn volume of picks in the ’80s. “The goal is just to find the best players,” Nagy said. “We have zero agenda.”
Burgess’ invitation stemmed from the Senior Bowl staff’s studying film of Utah’s defense, being aware of the other players. “Twenty-six started making plays,” Nagy said, citing Burgess’ jersey number. “That’s the cleanest evaluation ever, when a guy gets your attention and you’re not even looking for him.”
Burgess said his selection was “truly an honor” and Nagy tweeted to him, “Nobody earned this invite more than you.”
Utah’s picks for the Jan. 25 game are another sign of how everything converged to make 2019 a landmark season for the program. The No. 7 Utes (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) have fulfilled expectations to this point, with presumably more to come as they play for a berth in the conference championship game, working toward the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff.
Moss has become Utah’s all-time leading rusher and the five (and potentially six) other invitees anchor a No. 3-ranked defense. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley will have to regroup next season; his other senior starters, tackle John Penisini and cornerback Josh Nurse, also have excelled.
There’s not room for everybody in Mobile, but the Utes will be very well represented among the 114 players in the game — more so than any school since Auburn had nine players (six on defense) in the 1988 game.
The Utes have sent 31 players to the game in 70 years, never more than two in any class. Recent participants included offensive lineman Isaac Asiata, defensive lineman Kylie Fitts, safety Marquise Blair and punter Mitch Wishnowsky.
Six players in one year is remarkable. How did this happen? Well, it's called the Senior Bowl, and the Utes have an inordinate number of seniors as NFL prospects in this era. The fact those four stars considered turning pro last winter illustrates how so many juniors from premier programs enter the draft each year, leaving fewer senior stars available.
Bernard’s selection was not completely unexpected, because he had done enough toward the end of last season as a reserve to create high expectations. Burgess was the most surprising invitee, as a tribute to his four-year rise in the program. Outsiders were not sure what to expect from Burgess this season, after he played behind the likes of Chase Hansen, Corrion Ballard and Blair the previous two years.
Burgess is third on the team with 55 tackles in 10 games, including six tackles for loss, and has an interception and a fumble recovery.
“He has been tremendous this year,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We’ve always known he was an outstanding player. … He has played his way into an opportunity to play at the next level, just because of hard work.”
SENIOR BOWL SIX
Utah players selected to the 71st Senior Bowl:
Bradlee Anae, defensive end; 6-3, 265.
Francis Bernard, linebacker, 6-1, 235.
Julian Blackmon, safety; 6-1, 204.
Terrell Burgess, safety; 6-0, 198.
Leki Fotu, defensive tackle; 6-5, 335.
Zack Moss, running back, 5-10, 222.