Rose Bowl: Brant Kuithe deciding against NFL (again) was a surprise. This is why the Utes’ tight end is coming back.

A three-time All-Pac-12 selection at tight end, Kuithe announced Thursday he would return as a fifth-year senior

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brant Kuithe during a Rose Bowl media session in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Los Angeles • Utes tight end Brant Kuithe surprised a lot of Utah football fans last week when he announced he would return as a fifth-year senior in 2022.

After all, Kuithe flirted with leaving for the NFL a year ago, then had an All-Pac-12 season at tight end this season as the Utes won the Pac-12 and are through to their first Rose Bowl.

By the time Kuithe made his announcement Thursday, seven other Utes had already declared for the NFL draft. But it’s the ones who are coming back that convinced Kuithe to stick around for one more year.

“Throughout the season, I was kind of on the border the whole time,” Kuithe said Tuesday morning during a Rose Bowl media session ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Ohio State. “After winning the Pac-12, I kept thinking about it. I knew I had one more year of eligibility. I knew I could come back for one more year, finish it off right and do the same things, maybe even go to the (College Football) Playoff.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) as the University of Utah football team practices for the Rose Bowl at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

“I think that’s a possibility, especially with Cam (Rising) coming back. I had to think about it a lot. I talked to my family, and I decided to come back to see if we can do the same thing we did this year, maybe more.”

Kuithe has said in the past that much of his reasoning for returning in 2021 was rooted in the fact that Utah had only a five-game 2020 season, which was severely impacted by COVID-19. Kuithe wanted a full, normal 12-game season. Instead, he’s getting 14 games, capped by one of the highest-profile bowl games in the country.

Kuithe’s second and latest NFL draft decision is rooted in, not so much what he wants, but what he thinks can happen in 2022.

The three-time All-Pac-12 selection noted Utah’s 1-2 start this season, but then quickly pivoted to the fact that Rising’s emergence in late September immediately fueled a run to the conference title. To that end, Kuithe was willing to wade into this season’s big unknowns, what could Utah have been this season had Rising been the starter beginning Sept. 2 vs. Weber State.

There will never be an answer to that, but Kuithe is going to come back to find out as Rising, barring something unforeseen, will open spring practice in March as the unquestioned starter.

“You see how the year went, I think if we had Cam right off the bat, we probably would have gone undefeated,” Kuithe said. “This season started off slow, there were a lot of questions. You can’t go back and say things would have been different, but I think it would have been. Having him at quarterback for another year, with the guys we have coming back, we can do a little bit better.”

The day after Kuithe’s announcement, another All-Pac-12 tight end, Dalton Kincaid, announced he would return in 2022, giving Rising two of his top pass-catching options back for another season. The third member of Utah’s loaded tight ends room this fall, Cole Fotheringham, is one of the seven Utes intending to enter the NFL draft.

“We talked the whole time,” Kuithe said. “I let him know I was staying, so let’s run it back. I knew he was, too, so it was great.”

Devin Lloyd focused on Ohio State, but NFL draft prep looms

There was little, if any doubt that Devin Lloyd was going to play in the Rose Bowl. That is worth noting after several key Ohio State players, including projected first-round wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, opted out on Monday.

Like Wilson and Olave, Lloyd, the Utes’ All-American linebacker and this season’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, is a projected first-round pick.

Had Lloyd opted out in favor of preparing for the NFL Combine, no one would have flinched, but Lloyd wants to finish what he started, even as his future is starting to come into focus beyond Saturday’s game.

“I’ve talked to a couple of guys about what’s going to come in the future, but I haven’t spent a whole lot of time on it,” Lloyd said Monday afternoon following a team event at Disneyland. “It’s been brief, just because I’m focused on finishing this season right and ending my career on a high note.”

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has not been shy over the past year in his belief that Lloyd’s decision to return to school this fall for a full 12-game season would help him develop into a first–round pick. That notion appears set to come to fruition.

ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper currently has Lloyd slotted as the No. 8 overall pick and the top inside linebacker on the board. ESPN’s other NFL draft expert, Todd McShay, currently has Lloyd as the No. 14 overall pick.

Lloyd is bidding to be the eighth first-round pick in Utah history, and the first since Garrett Boles was selected 20th overall in 2017.

“I have some expectations about what’s going to come in the future,” Lloyd said. “I’m obviously really excited for that, I’m really excited to take on my future, but right now, I’m focused on Ohio State.”