Utes’ NFL draft haul represents strong recruiting, evaluating by Kyle Whittingham and staff

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On Feb. 3, 2016, the University of Utah announced a football recruiting class of 24 players, 18 of whom were high school prospects.

In terms of recruiting rankings, the group did not collectively make huge waves. The class was ranked 37th nationally by 247sports.com, including just eighth in the Pac-12. Two of the three four-star recruits were junior college transfers, everyone else was a three-star.

When the dust settled Saturday evening on the NFL draft, four of those three-star recruits — Bradlee Anae, Terrell Burgess, Leki Fotu and Zack Moss — had been drafted. A fifth, All-Pac-12 quarterback Tyler Huntley, was scooped up by the Baltimore Ravens on an undrafted free agent deal just minutes after the conclusion of the seventh and final round.

In hindsight, Utah’s 2016 recruiting class did not offer an abundance of pomp and circumstance, but it was a quintessential Kyle Whittingham class. Mostly unheralded, ripe to be molded, its best football far ahead of it.

“I just have so many good things to say about our assistant coaches and the way they evaluate,” Whittingham said on an April 21 Zoom call with reporters, two days before the NFL draft began. “That’s really what recruiting boils down to, is evaluation. When you’re a development program like we are, you’ve got to project.

“It’s not where the kid is right now, it’s where he can be in two or three years. That’s really the essence of recruiting, at least for us. There’s a lot that goes into these evaluations. You’ve got to do your homework and do a deep drill-down on these kids.”

If it wasn’t already clear that Whittingham and his assistants are strong evaluators and teachers, it should be now. In addition to the seven draft picks, the Utes had five players signed to undrafted free agent deals by dinnertime on Saturday night. A sixth UDFA, wide receiver Demari Simpkins, may still latch on with an NFL team, but had not yet as of Sunday morning.

Everything that went on for Utah this weekend could be viewed as a vital recruiting tool. Its seven draft picks were the most among Pac-12 teams, as are the program’s 21 draft picks in the last four years. Whittingham has had 52 players drafted under his watch, which dates back to 2005.

The seven Utes drafted this weekend were tied for fifth-most in the country with Clemson, Georgia and Florida. Those three programs, though, as @WestCoastFB pointed out Saturday night on Twitter, have exponentially more four and five-star recruits on their respective rosters. The number of five-star prospects on Utah’s roster is zero.

To drive the overarching point home, it is worth noting what Clark Phillips Sr. had to say on Twitter Saturday morning. His son, Clark Phillips III, will be a freshman cornerback this fall for the Utes. A four-star recruit and one-time Ohio State commit, Phillips III is the highest-rated recruit in Utah history, per the 247sports composite.

“The Utes have 3 DBs taken in the 1st 3Rds of the draft and the most players drafted from the PAC so far by any school. #whyyoupickUTAH. #Development”

“Where we’ve made our money over the years is through developing,” Whittingham said. “Taking the players we get in the program, guys that may be missing something, maybe they have the big frame, but they’re missing some weight or missing some strength and just figuring out what we need to do to develop these guys and get them where they need to be.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing a kid come in there, an 18-year-old kid that maybe doesn’t have a lot of direction, and he leaves here a guy that has a degree in his hand and an opportunity to hopefully take his game to the next level.”

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