Playing or not, expect the Utah pipeline to the NFL to continue

Rob Rang

Over the past several weeks, NFLDraftScout.com has previewed the top NFL prospects for each of the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 programs, as well as top independents Notre Dame and BYU. Among other conferences at the FBS and FCS level, the Big Ten and Pac-12’s bold decision to cancel their respective fall seasons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic means that NFL scouts will be evaluating prospects from their teams based mostly off of 2019 film. Until college football games officially return, we will be continuing our breakdown of each team with the mighty SEC on tap following the conclusion of the Pac-12 programs.

Utah Utes

Head Coach: Kyle Whittingham (16th season)

2019 Record: 11-3

2020 NFL Draft Picks: Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago Bears – 2nd Round, No. 50 overall

Julian Blackmon, DB, Indianapolis Colts – 3rd Round, No. 85 overall 

Zack Moss, RB, Buffalo Bills – 3rd Round, No. 86 overall

Terrell Burgess, OLB, Los Angeles Rams – 3rd Round, No. 104 overall

Leki Fotu, DT, Arizona Cardinals – 4th Round, No. 114 overall

Bradlee Anae, DE, Dallas Cowboys – 5th Round, No. 179 overall

John Pensini, DT, Detroit Lions – 6th Round, No. 197 overall

Overview:

Though it ended in disappointing fashion, the Utah Utes enjoyed their greatest season under Kyle Whittingham since joining the Pac-12 conference in 2011, winning the Pac-12 South for the second consecutive year and qualifying for both the conference title game and the Alamo Bowl.

It marked the fifth time in the past dozen years in which the Utes earned double-digit wins on the season with last year’s 11-3 campaign the best since Whittingham’s group finished undefeated in 2008 as part of the Mountain West Conference. That team, you might remember, thumped mighty Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to culminate the year as the No. 2 ranked team in the final AP Poll, behind only a 13-1 Florida Gators squad that was led by Urban Meyer, Whittingham’s predecessor at Utah.

While there were plenty of highs for the Utes in the past year – including throughout the 2020 NFL draft – losses to Southern Cal, Oregon and Texas in the Alamo Bowl proved that this was still a team that struggled a bit with consistency, at least outside of the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium.

What has been consistent since Whittingham took over, however, is his program’s ability to churn out quality NFL prospects.

A well-earned reputation for physicality and power at the point of attack has made the line of scrimmage at Utah a hot spot for scouts to watch, but the Utes are much more than the brutes playing in the pit. In fact, the Utes have produced at least one NFL draft pick at every position on the football field (including kicker and punter) since Whittingham took over full-time operations in 2005 – an accomplishment few programs across the country can claim, including no other team in the Pac-12.

Utah’s emergence as one of the elite producers of future NFL players was cemented last year when the team had seven players drafted – nearly double that of any other Pac-12 program (Oregon had four).

If there is a silver lining to be found with the Pac-12 opting out of fall sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that it provides Whittingham and his staff more time to develop the next wave of Utah prospects. The team must replace 11 all-conference picks from last year – including all eight of its Pac-12 leading First-Team selections, not the least of which is the league’s Offensive Player of the Year Zack Moss at running back and the Morris Trophy winner Bradlee Anae at defensive end, as well as gutty quarterback Tyler Huntley.

Featured 2021 NFL Draft Prospect: Nick Ford, OL, 6-5, 324, 5.10, rJR

Ford is one of the few returning starters for the Utes. Where he’ll line up when the Utah returns to action, however, remains to be seen as the 2019 Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 pick has logged time at every position along the offensive line except left tackle over the past two seasons.

He began last year at right tackle before sliding inside to right guard for the final 13 games of the year. Heading into the season he had been projected at left guard, where he’d started six games in 2018, along with another start at right tackle. Ford also saw action at center earlier in the year against Washington State.

Given his hulking frame, it would be easy to typecast Ford as your typical Utah offensive lineman. He is much quicker off the ball than most interior blockers, however, and possesses the length to suggest that his long-term future could be back outside.

With 20 career starts already under his belt, scouts are likely already quite familiar with Ford. That isn’t to suggest that he’s a finished product. His battery-mate at center, Orlando Umana, in fact, is currently the more consistent and reliable player. The prototypically-built Ford’s flashes are bright, however, allowing scouts to project what he could be with a little more polish.

Unlike many of the top-rated players we’ve featured throughout the summer, Draft Twitter does not yet have a lot of cut-ups of Ford. Just watch No. 55 deliver key blocks on some of Moss’ best runs last year, however.

What is clear about Ford, however, is his passion on and off the field. He was among the leaders of the #WeAreUnited movement throughout the Pac-12 and the rest of college football and recognized the role college football could have in slowing (or speeding up) transmission of the virus.

Strengths: Looks the part of an NFL blocker with a massive frame and his weight evenly distributed throughout. Much quicker and more agile than his bulky frame suggests, exploding off the ball as a downhill drive blocker and skipping out of his stance when asked to pull. Shows impressive coordination on his pulls, smoothly slipping out and adjusting to moving targets at the second level. Effective combo-blocker, getting a powerful initial shove on defensive linemen before releasing to find secondary targets. Long arms and heavy hands complement Ford’s quickness, allowing him to catch defenders on the fly and control them once he latches on, ripping them down emphatically. Looks to dominate his opponent, surging through his hips to deliver pancakes when he feels defenders off-balance. Can be a pile-mover when he keeps his pads low, showing good lower body strength. Good lateral agility for pass protection, easily shuffling to mirror. Steady improvement in his awareness of twists and stunts, passing off blocks efficiently. Already possesses 20 career starts at a variety of positions with his primary flaws fixable if he’s committed to his craft… Comes by his intriguing athleticism naturally with his father, Mike Ford, playing wide receiver at Cal from 1986-1989… Was inspired to play football by his late older brother, Mike, Jr. who battled health issues all of his life and tragically succumbed to them May 17, 2019.

Weaknesses: Far too inconsistent at this time, including in his initial get-off, suggesting a lack of concentration on the snap count. Too often surprised at the point of attack, misfiring with his initial punch and stumbling in failed attempts at recovering, resulting in some ugly whiffs. Negates his own strength by standing up at the snap and losing the leverage battle. Too often knocked back on his heels against bull rushers. Ford usually is able to recover because of his length and core strength but the penetration he allows can disrupt the play nevertheless, forcing the quarterback or running back to read and adjust off of his block unnecessarily. Feet grow roots, at times, with Ford failing to shuffle laterally to mirror and instead relying on his length and power to shove defenders rather than locking on and sustaining.

NFL Player Comparison: Daryl Williams, Buffalo Bills – The 6-5, 325 pound Williams was a star at right tackle at Oklahoma – earning a fourth round pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2015. He has since spent plenty of time inside at guard, as well, logging action at both guard and tackle spots over his career. His girth, power and surprising initial quickness make him a fit for downhill running teams but Williams – like Ford – isn’t a fit for everyone.

Current NFL Draft Projection: Third Round

The Top 10 NFL Prospects at Utah:

1. Nick Ford, OL, 6-5, 324, 5.10, rJR

2. Orlando Umana, OL, 6-3, 340, 5.30, SR

3. Devin Lloyd, OLB, 6-2, 235, 4.70, rJR

4. Mika Tafua, DE, 6-2, 258, 4.80, rJR

5. Maxs Tupai, DE, 6-1, 260, 4.65, SR

6. Devin Brumfield, RB, 5-10, 218, 4.55, JR

7. Brant Kuithe, TE, 6-2, 235, 4.70, JR

8. Jaylen Dixon, WR, 5-09, 170, 4.40, rJR

9. Bamidele Olaseni, OT, 6-6, 322, 5.10, SR

10. Simi Moala, OT, 6-6, 305, 5.15, rSoph

*All 40-yard dash times are estimates

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