Author's note: A hat tip to @UtesInTheNFL for providing some of the information for this article. Give them a follow for a closer look at former Utah Utes now strutting their stuff in the NFL, which is basically what this article is about.
On the big stage that is Monday Night Football, Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross protected the blindside of Cam Newton just long enough for wide receiver Steve Smith to streak down the sideline for a 42-yard reception.
Minutes later, Panthers rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei blasted into the backfield to take down New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for a nine-yard loss. And it all happened in front of a national television audience of 15,772 million viewers.
Looks like the Utah Utes have quite the impressive recruiting tool at their disposal: a proven track record of developing 1-, 2-, 3- and whatever-star high school football recruits into legit NFL draft prospects. Not only prospects, too, but valuable contributors.
As of Monday, 21 former Utes are on 13 NFL rosters in seven divisions—the lone division without a representative is the NFC West. You can expect that number to grow in the upcoming years, as the program welcomes the perks of being a member of the Pac-12. Hey, that number is likely to grow as soon as next year.
Though Utah has struggled to a 4-6 record this season, the roster has an abundance of talent. Here are the five most NFL-ready prospects on the team—only draft eligible prospects qualify for consideration, so no freshmen or true sophomores.
But first, let's review a few who barely missed the cut.
WR Dres Anderson
He failed to crack the top five because of his penchant for drops. At the same time, I was tempted to include him because of his blazing speed and penchant for big plays. Anderson currently leads the Pac-12 in yards per reception (19.0).
WR Kenneth Scott
Before a devastating leg injury against Utah State in the season opener, Scott and Anderson formed one of the better wide receiving duos in the conference. With a big frame and outstanding leaping ability, Scott is an ideal red zone weapon, something the offense is desperately missing.
WR Anthony Denham
At 6'4", 225 pounds, his best shot at making an NFL roster may be at tight end. He's already an exceptional blocker with reliable hands.
LB Jacoby Hale
Not enough tape on him to know for sure, but he's made enough plays to warrant consideration. We'll know more after his senior season.
LB/S Brian Blechen (injury)
Either at linebacker or strong safety, he's a ballhawk and physical presence on defense. In three seasons as a starter, Blechen has compiled 203 total tackles, 15 for a loss, 12 passes defended, eight interceptions and six forced fumbles.
G Junior Salt
The line as a whole has been mostly ineffective, but Salt has transitioned well since moving from the other side of the ball. Salt has the size (6'2", 325 pounds), speed and strength to contribute at the next level.
DT Tenny Palepoi
He hasn't quite filled the shoes of first-round draft pick Lotulelei, but he's at least filled his flip flops. Palepoi too has demanded double teams while also registering 41 total tackles, 7.5 for a loss and 3.5 sacks.
Now, drum roll please, on to the top five...
5. CB Keith McGill
While McGill has the versatility to play safety, he is first and foremost a cornerback. A big cornerback, too. And his off-the-chart measurements (6'3", 215 pounds, 4.4 40-yard dash) alone will draw interest from scouts across the country. To back it up, the first-year starter for Utah has returned an interception for a touchdown and is a Pac-12 leader in passes defended with 10.
As NFL teams turn to bigger, more physical cornerbacks, don't be surprised when McGill rises up draft boards come April. After all, scouts always fall head over heels for the p-word: potential.
4. S Eric Rowe
After earning First Team Freshman All-American honors in 2011, Rowe looked like a top free safety prospect in the making. Then last season happened. Don't get me wrong, his sophomore campaign was no sophomore slump, but it was a bit of a sophomore stall.
The lack of noticeable improvement is a concern, but the talent is there. Rowe has the sideline-to-sideline speed required to excel at free safety and is not afraid to step up in the box. He plays hard, quickly dissects offenses and rarely misses a tackle. There is no reason Rowe shouldn't hear his name called in the fourth or fifth rounds, whether he declares early or stays another year.
3. DE Nate Orchard
The sack artist formerly known as Nate Fakahafua.
Orchard is a force rushing the passer, collecting three sacks and eight tackles for a loss, and has really stepped up this season as a run stopper. Though the high school wide receiver has converted into a defensive end at Utah, he projects as an outside linebacker in the NFL. His rare blend of strength, length and sheer athleticism should lead to a hearty career as a pro.
2. TE Jake Murphy
Just watch a few snaps, and you'll understand why I never hesitate to discuss my man crush on Murphy. He understands the game, knows where to be and when, and knows what to do when he gets there. Simply put, he is a football player. A very tough one at that.
Just four weeks after breaking his wrist at UCLA, an injury that was supposed to sideline him for the remainder of the season and beyond, Murphy returned to the field this past weekend to haul in two receptions, including a 34-yard touchdown grab.
Scouts view him as a prototypical tight end, able to stay in as a blocker or run sharp routes as a receiver. He really bursts off the line, creates separation and possesses soft, sure hands. A big senior season could vault Murphy into the top three rounds of the draft.
1. DE/OLB Trevor Reilly
Reilly has earned this spot, fair and square, but he still does not get the widespread credit he deserves. Despite producing on the field at a first-round rate, Reilly is nowhere to be found on most first-round mock drafts.
On the other hand, draft guru Mel Kiper has the outside linebacker going to the Tennessee Titans with the 22nd overall selection.
So maybe his numbers—83 total tackles, 15.5 for a loss, nine sacks and three fumbles recovered through 10 games—are finally too hard to ignore. Coaches have used Reilly like a movable chess piece to terrorize offenses from every angle possible, and he's done just that. He uses pure speed, surprising strength and a nonstop motor to make plays all over the field. Literally.
And for those reasons and more, he has earned the No. 1 spot on this list.
Welcome to the national radar, Reilly.
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