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Devin Lloyd returned to Utah for moments like Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game

Lloyd, Nick Ford and Brant Kuithe all put the NFL on hold for a year with the hopes of delivering the Utes a Pac-12 championship

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes cornerback Clark Phillips III (8) celebrates the defensive play of teammate Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) who held back Arizona State Sun Devils running back DeaMonte Trayanum (1) as the University of Utah hosts the Arizona Sun Devils in Pac-12 action at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Oct. 10, 2021.

Instead of playing in Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game, Devin Lloyd could be getting paid to play football.

Lloyd could have left the University of Utah after last season, declared for the NFL draft, and no one would have questioned him. Worst-case scenario, Lloyd would have been a Day 3 pick last spring. He then would have been a safe bet to make an opening-day 53-man roster, leaving behind a college career that included All-Pac-12 selections in 2019 and 2020.

Lloyd flirted with the NFL draft after last season’s COVID-impacted five-game schedule, but he opted to return. Part of that decision was financially related. Lloyd has said a conversation with former Ute linebacker Cody Barton shaped his thinking. Barton, now with the Seattle Seahawks, asked Lloyd if he would rather have $1 million right now or $5 million in a year.

Lloyd knew the answer to that rhetorical question, but there was more on Lloyd’s mind than money. The NFL wasn’t going anywhere, and there was unfinished business that he simply was not willing to leave behind.

“More than anything, I want to win,” Lloyd said then. “I want to leave with a championship, with a nice little ring on my finger, hopefully a couple of rings. I want to bring guys along with me, too. I love helping others, I’ve said that before. I know this team wants to be great, I know I’m not the only one on the team that wants to be great.”

Moments like Friday night are the reason Lloyd waived off the proverbial $1 million Barton told him would be there in a year. After Pac-12 championship game losses in 2018 and 2019, when the Utes would have likely wound up in the College Football Playoff with a win over Oregon, Lloyd wants to get Utah over the hump.

If Utah beats Oregon at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas (6 p.m., ABC) for the second time in 13 days, the Utes are going to the Rose Bowl for the first time in the program’s 11th season as a Pac-12 member. That would qualify as a quick rise to the top of a Power Five conference, and Lloyd will stand as a central figure of the last half-decade of that rise.

“I had a lot of faith and belief in this team, understanding that we could get to this point,” Lloyd said following practice on Monday evening. “That played a lot into my decision to come back. To see it come to fruition is a blessing.

“Losing both of those games after clinching the South, making it to the championship, then not being able to finish the job is definitely heartbreaking. I wouldn’t want anyone to experience that, but ultimately it happens every year, so we’re doing everything in our power to be on the winning side this time.”

Lloyd may be the highest-profile NFL prospect, complete with an early Senior Bowl invitation and projections that are now well inside the first round on April 28, but he is not the only one who made the same decision.

All-Pac-12 center Nick Ford, who was hurt for the 2018 title game, but started at right guard in the 2019 loss, was getting third-round projections following last season. He, like Lloyd, wanted one more run at something significant, while improving his own draft stock.

Same with All-Pac-12 tight end Brant Kuithe, who will start in his third Pac-12 championship game in as many non-COVID seasons. Kuithe has said multiple times over the last year that, yes, the possibility of Utah getting back to this point played into his decision, but so did the fact that playing only five games last season, going 3-2, wasn’t going to be a satisfying close to his college career.

Utah will play game No. 13 on Friday night. The Utes are guaranteed a 14th in a few weeks in a bowl game, it’s just a matter of which one.

“Going to the Pac-12 championship game twice and coming up short both years, it’s a horrible, bad taste in your mouth,” Kuithe said. “This year, the main focus was to go to the Pac-12 championship, and we’re here. We just have to execute.”

Added Utah coach Kyle Whittingham on guys returning with the Pac-12 championship in mind: “Absolutely, that factored in. With pretty much all of those juniors that decided to come back. Yes, that was one of the elements that helped make their decision, and I would say it was fairly significant for most of them.”

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