In preparation for the 2014 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.
Few outside of the state of Utah expected the Utes to come into the newly formed Pac-12 and dominate with the consistency that they had in the Mountain West and thus, head coach Kyle Whittingham's 13-12 overall record since joining the conference (including 7-11 in league play) isn't considered surprising.
Whittingham and Utes' fans, however, expect much more. This is, after all, the last team to beat mighty Alabama in a bowl game (2008-09 Sugar Bowl); something they are used to doing. Until last season's disappointing 5-7 campaign, Utah qualified for a bowl each year since 2002.
Utah does not boast the same caliber of athletes as the upper-echelon teams in the conference but Whittingham's success with junior college prospects has nonetheless made Salt Lake City a breeding ground for NFL prospects. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was the big name last year but 10 former Utes have earned top 100 draft selections since 2003, including NFL standouts Paul Kruger (OLB drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, now with the Cleveland Browns), Eric Weddle (S, San Diego Chargers) and Jordan Gross (OT, Carolina Panthers). The 2013 roster does not possess an obvious candidate to join this group, however.
It isn't just a talent issue holding the Utes back. Injuries have been a recurring problem, including at the game's most important position. The Utes haven't seen a quarterback start and finish an entire season unscathed since 2008. Three passers started games for the Utes last year. Fortunately, true freshman Travis Wilson was the most impressive of the trio and the 6-5, 240-pounder is expected to be one of the building blocks for Utah's revival. He'll have help, as Utah boasts some intriguing pass-catchers on their roster and added longtime NCAA and NFL coach Dennis Erickson as co-offensive coordinator.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 15
2013 NFL Draft picks: Two - DT Star Lotulelei (Carolina Panthers, first round), DE Joe Kruger (Philadelphia Eagles, seventh round)
Top Utah prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
1. TE Jake Murphy (6-4, 252, 4.87)*
Despite starting just five games for the Utes last season, Murphy earned honorable mention all-conference accolades and the expectation in Salt Lake City is that he's on the precipice of a breakout junior campaign.
Murphy's 33 grabs last year were good for second on the team. He finished with 349 yards on the season and led the Utes with four touchdown receptions.
While sporting the broad-shouldered, well-built frame normally associated with this position, Murphy does not consistently play with the power his build suggests. He is a willing blocker but often lined up on the wing as a "move" tight end, taking advantage of his quickness. Murphy's quickness off the snap and flexibility in avoiding the jam when releasing into routes makes him an effective security blanket. He possesses soft hands with good hand-eye coordination to make catches outside of his frame and good concentration to make the contested grab with defenders surrounding him.
Like many Utah players, Murphy is an older prospect. He'll turn 23 in September after serving a church mission in Sydney, Australia and Boston, Mass. He boasts impressive athletic bloodlines, as his father, Dale Murphy was a six-time National League all-star in Major League Baseball and his brother, Shawn, played at Utah State and spent some time with the Denver Broncos.
2. OLB Trevor Reilly (6-4, 245, 4.74)
A former walk-on, Reilly enters his senior campaign having played in 36 career games and emerged last year as an honorable mention all-Pac-12 defender. While Lotulelei and brothers Joe and Dave Kruger earned most of the attention from the media last season, it was Reilly who led the Utes with 69 tackles last season, including 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
For the first time in his career, Reilly started every game last season, splitting his time between "stud" linebacker (eight starts) and right defensive end (four). He is expected to line up mostly at defensive end in 2013, though this could be a reflection of the losses Utah has on the defensive line rather than Reilly's best fit, as he lacks the bulk and strength to be consistently effective at this position.
Reilly's best attributes are his light feet and length. He flashes impressive quickness, accelerating to the ball smoothly and changing directions well for a player of his size. Because of his burst, Reilly can arrive with a pop and he has an impressive history of forced fumbles (seven in last two seasons). He possesses a long, lanky build that is underdeveloped in comparison to most Pac-12 defensive linemen. His success as a pass rusher is due to his agility, as he's capable of avoiding blocks, but once opponents have latched on to him, Reilly struggles to break free and too often winds up on the ground. He certainly is tough. Reilly suffered a partially torn ACL and meniscus in spring football prior to last season and yet played through the injury. He did not undergo surgery until December and sat out contact drills this spring to fully rehabilitate.
Assuming he receives a clean bill of health from NFL doctors, Reilly possesses the length and athleticism combination to warrant development, though unless he gets significantly stronger, his future lies back at linebacker.
3. OLB Brian Blechen (6-2, 225, 4.68)
While Murphy and Reilly's upside could make either the top NFL prospect for the Utes in 2014, their best returning player is likely Blechen, a former Freshman All-American safety whose time in the weight room and physical play has turned him into an intriguing linebacker candidate.
Blechen signed with Utah as a quarterback but made the transition to safety as a true freshmen and showed a penchant for making the big play. Blechen (pronounced Bleckin) recorded 67 tackles in 2010, including 3.5 tackles for loss (and 1.5 sacks) but it was his four interceptions - including game-savers in victories over Pittsburgh and San Diego State that helped him earn national acclaim.
Splitting his time between strong safety and linebacker over the past two seasons since Utah made the jump to the Pac-12, Blechen has continued to impress, earning honorable mention all-conference recognition after each season. He enters his senior campaign having started all 35 games of his career and with 203 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and eight interceptions to his credit.
While his success at the collegiate level is impressive, Blechen remains a bit of a 'tweener in the eyes of scouts. He does not possess the bulk most teams prefer at linebacker and lacks the fluidity and straight-line speed to handle coverage duties as a safety. He is an instinctive, physical defender who plays with reckless abandon and can make the eye-popping collision. Unfortunately, this aggression can also get him in trouble, as Blechen will lower his head on contact and fail to wrap up, allowing ball-carriers to slip by.
Other Utah prospects worth watching:
DT Tenny Palepoi (6-2, 300, 5.14)
No one player is going to replace Lotulelei in the middle for the Utes, but Palepoi possesses the intriguing blend of size, strength and bloodlines to help fill the gap. The younger brother of former six-year NFL defensive end Anton Palepoi, Tenny earned All-American honors at Snow College in 2011 and recorded 21 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks while backing up Dave Kruger last season. Quick off the snap and powerful due to impressive strength and use of leverage, Palepoi could intrigue scouts, especially given Utah's impressive history of churning out quality defensive linemen. Nine Utah defensive linemen have been drafted into the NFL since 2000, including Paul Soliai (Miami Dolphins, 2007), Sione Pouha (New York Jets, 2005) and Jonathan Fanene (Cincinnati Bengals).
CB/S Keith McGill (6-2, 202, 4.49)
McGill earned All-American honors at Cerritos Junior College and signed with Utah as a highly regarded free safety. He played in five games at this position in 2011 before a shoulder injury ended his season early and missed all of 2012 in a lengthy rehab following surgery to correct the issue. Moved to cornerback, McGill performed well during spring camp and could play his way into draft consideration with a big senior season.
OL Vyncent Jones (6-3, 305, 5.28)
Jones will make the switch to center after playing guard the past three seasons for the Utes. He started eight games in 2012 (six at left guard, two at right) in an injury-shortened junior campaign but despite his limited time on the field still led the team in pancake blocks (12). Quick and alert, he could earn a chance with a club looking for a versatile interior lineman.
WR Dres Anderson (6-1, 187, 4.64)*
The Utes' official website claims Anderson has been clocked in the 4.4s and he flashes this kind of speed on tape. Anderson led the Utes in catches (36) and receiving yards (365) in 2012 and could be on the verge of a breakout campaign if Utah gets more consistency from the quarterback position.
The full list of the players and teams previewed by NFLDraftScout.com can be seen here.