In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
NFL Draft picks the past five years: 13
2012 NFL Draft picks: One -- OL Tony Bergstrom (Third Round, No. 95 overall)
While Utah enjoyed a great deal of success under head coach Kyle Whittingham in the Mountain West Conference, some wondered just how productive the Utes would be once they joined the expanded Pac-12. Battling injuries, including to starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, the Utes finished 8-5 in 2011. Had they not lost a stunner to fellow conference rookie Colorado 19-16, it would have been Utah (and not UCLA) which would have faced Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. For what it's worth, Utah beat UCLA 31-6 when the two faced off in Salt Lake City on Nov. 12.
Since taking over for Urban Meyer, Whittingham (7-1 in bowl games) has helped Utah become not only a consistent thorn in the side of "major" programs all over the country, but develop into a fairly reliable contributor of NFL prospects.
This season, with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei viewed as a possible top-five pick in next April's draft and the conference's leading returning rusher in John White IV, the Utes return a talented and experienced roster that could once again surprise many in the Pac-12.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
Rarely does a player come along who so thoroughly dominates his competition that despite posting only average statistics and playing in a relatively small media market he generates buzz across the entire nation. That is precisely what 6-3, 318 pound defensive tackle Star Lotulelei (pictured above) accomplished this past season for Utah. Recognized by Pac-12 offensive linemen as the best defensive lineman in the conference with the Morris Trophy, Lotulelei posted 44 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks despite facing consistent double- and even occasional triple-team blocks in 2011. With an awesome combination of quickness and power, Lotulelei made more plays than his statistics would indicate as he frequently blew up plays in the middle in which the ball carrier (whether the quarterback or running back) was forced to abandon the original design of the play, run from the fearsome monster in the middle and right into the arms of another Ute defender. Blessed with long arms, quick feet and a high-revving motor, Lotulelei has all of the physical traits to warrant early first-round consideration. Scouts on the road last season told me they saw a physical skill set that brought back memories of an unpolished but dominant Haloti Ngata, who played his college ball at Oregon before developing into an All-Pro defensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. For his high preseason grade to become reality, however, Lotulelei needs to prove that his 2011 campaign was no fluke -- a legitimate concern considering Lotulelei entered last season having only emerged as a starter in the final three games of 2010 (21 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack). Lotulelei is currently NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated defensive tackle available in the 2013 NFL Draft and is our No. 3-rated prospect, overall.
2. RB John White (5-8, 186)
While Utah's biggest player will undoubtedly create more of buzz in the scouting community this season, the Utes' smallest player, pound for pound, just might be the best on the team. White signed with Utah as a highly touted junior college prospect. He had starred at L.A. Harbor College, earning Central West Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2010 and leaving the Seahawks with a trail of broken single-season and career rushing records in his wake. Despite the success at the JUCO ranks, some doubted what kind of impact White might have for the Utes, especially considering he joined the team as they stepped up their level of competition by signing on with the Pac-12. Any concerns about White's ability to handle the step up was answered last year, as the compact runner blazed through defenses to the tune of 1,519 yards, breaking a 29-year-old school record for the most rushing yards in a season and ranking behind only Oregon's LaMichael James for the conference title. As is often the case with shorter backs, White is typically characterized as speedy or elusive. He certainly has the speed to run away from defenders and has excellent lateral agility, quickness and vision to make defenders miss in tight quarters. He's also a very physical back who consistently finishes his runs by keeping his legs churning through contact, spinning off would-be tacklers for extra yards and using his natural leverage advantage to consistently fall forward -- just as he did in scoring the winning touchdown over Georgia Tech in the Utes' overtime Sun Bowl victory to end last season. Though he lacks the size normally associated with featured runners, White certainly demonstrated the toughness to handle a heavy workload. In fact, he led the Pac-12 with 312 carries -- a total that ranked third in the entire country. Based on one season of BCS-level football it would be borderline laughable to compare White to former "undersized" college stars like NFL All-Pros Maurice Jones-Drew or Ray Rice... but make no mistake, White is a legitmate NFL prospect who might be the best back in the country that no one outside of the state of Utah seems to be talking about...
3. C Tevita Stevens (6-2, 300)
While his Pac-12 rival Khaled Holmes from Southern California is nearly universally viewed as the top center prospect in not only the conference but the country, Stevens is quietly well regarded by talent evaluators as well. Stevens, entering his fourth season as a starter, originally earned his way onto the field at right guard, playing in all 13 games and starting 10 in 2009. He didn't allow a single sack while starting all 13 games (12 at right guard, one at center) in 2010 and was asked to make the move to the pivot full-time as a junior, where he finished second behind only star tackle Tony Bergstrom (selected by the Oakland Raiders in third round) with an 83% overall grade. Like the Trojans' Holmes, Stevens is at his best playing short-area football, as he lacks the top-notch athleticism that has helped the likes of Peter Konz and the Pouncey twins (among others) earn picks in the top two rounds. Stevens has a wide lower half and uses his size and strength to consistently knock defenders on their heels at the snap, creating good running lanes for White. He is alert in pass protection and plays with good knee bend, showing the ability to anchor against hard-charging linebackers as well powerful interior defensive linemen. Likely to be viewed by some NFL scouts as a better fit back at right guard than center, Stevens ranks as one of the better and more underrated "second-tier" interior linemen I've scouted thus far this summer.
4. WR DeVonte Christopher (6-1, 200)
Though none of them have ever come close to matching the success of former Utes star Steve Smith in the NFL, Utah has consistently sent receivers to league, with four wideouts having been selected since Smith was drafted by the Carolina Panthers No. 74 overall in 2001. The lean, athletic Christopher has led the Utes in receiving each of the past two seasons and could see his numbers grow significantly in 2012 with starting QB Jordan Wynn returning to health. Christopher caught 42 passes for 663 yards and five touchdowns a season ago for the Utes, including one of the biggest of the season -- a 24-yard catch down the sideline on fourth-and-14 with just 1:32 remaining to put Utah in position to send the Sun Bowl into overtime. Christopher, who signed with Utah as a quarterback, is still developing as a route-runner and too often allows passes into his pads. However, he has become a more consistent threat over his career, is an experienced kick returner and has the combination of size and speed worthy of late-round consideration.
5. DT Dave Kruger (6-5, 295)
The younger brother of former Utah standout (and Baltimore Ravens starting OLB) Paul Kruger, Dave could be on the verge of a breakout senior campaign considering that he'll likely be facing only one blocker most of the time while opponents focus on Lotulelei. Kruger, who has played in 38 of a possible 39 games (including 27 starts) since joining the Utes, added 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason, according to Whittingham. The added strength and mass should help Utah rank as one of toughest run defenses in the Pac-12 despite the fact that they are replacing two of their three linebackers. Kruger, like Lotulelei, has never been a stats monster. He has averaged just 29 tackles over his three seasons as a starter and has only four sacks during that time. His length, strength and durability, however, will be sure to intrigue NFL scouts looking for either an interior run-plugger for the 4-3 or as a classic five-technique defensive end for the 3-4 capable of setting the edge.
CB Ryan Lacy (5-09, 187)
SS Brian Blechne (6-1, 220)*
DE/OLB Trevor Reilly (6-4, 238)*
DE Joe Kruger (6-6, 270)*
QB Jordan Wynn (6-1, 202)*
For all of NFLDraftScout.com's team by team previews of the top prospects to watch in the 2012 season in preparation for the 2013 NFL draft, click here.
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