Thanks to a pair of defensive linemen with compelling stories and intriguing names — Ziggy and Star — the 78th annual NFL draft, which kicks off Thursday at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, could be one for the ages for the Beehive State.
BYU’s Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah and Utah’s Star Lotulelei are projected as top-15 picks in the first round. Some believe they both could be taken among the first five picks. If, as expected, Ansah and Lotulelei go in the first round, it would be a historic achievement. The Cougars and Utes have never had first-round selections in the same draft.
Meanwhile, this is the third-consecutive NFL draft where at least one Utah State Aggie is likely to be picked. Just a few years ago hearing the name of a Utah State player at the NFL draft was an anomaly. From 2000 to 2010 an Aggie was drafted just four times — a rare Chris Cooley or Kevin Curtis that was able to show his talent despite playing for a downtrodden team. Things are different now.
“I think it’s a testament of where the program is,” Utah State coach Matt Wells said. “It’s a product of our recruiting and it’s a product of our development.”
While Ansah and Lotulelei headline this year’s local crop of NFL hopefuls, a number of other players from the state could also be drafted.
From Uona Kaveinga to John White IV, here’s a player-by-player rundown on the NFL prospects from universities in the state of Utah.
Contributing: Jeff Call, Dirk Facer, Kraig Williams, Trevor Phibbs, Landon Hemsley and Matt Petersen helped compile this list.
Position: Defensive line
Height and weight: 6-5, 271
2012 stats: Totaled 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, six quarterback hurries and nine pass breakups.
Ezekiel Ansah’s amazing ascension from unknown novice to coveted pass rusher is well-documented, as media outlets from around the country, including Sports Illustrated and ESPN, have chronicled his story.
Just years removed from living in Ghana and knowing nothing about football, the freakishly athletic Ansah has received considerable attention despite starting just nine games in his collegiate career.
“It’s an amazing thing that he wasn’t recruited, then he finds himself at BYU,” said Cougar coach Bronco Mendenhall. “To see him having the success he is having is so much fun. It’s an amazing story. As Ziggy would probably tell you, he was on the verge of quitting football 50-plus times over his three years here because of how difficult the transition was.”
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr. projects Ansah as a top-5 pick.
“He’s enjoyed as meteoric of a rise up the board as any player in my 35 years covering the draft,” Kiper said. “I would say (he goes) 2 to Jacksonville or 5 to Detroit. At worst, 8 to Buffalo. That’s amazing considering he was off the radar — completely undrafted — when the season began.”
Career highlights/honors: Named MVP of Senior Bowl in January. Named Pro Football Weekly All-America honorable mention, Phil Steele and FBS All-Independent First Team. Was invited to NFL scouting combine.
Position: Offensive line
Height and weight: 6-4, 305
2012 stats: Started in all 12 games, ranking second on the line in terms of plays. Finished with double-digit knockdowns.
Sam Brenner is the only son of two U.S. Marines. An Oceanside, Calif., native, Brenner was the person primarily responsible for bringing former Utah quarterback and current Hawaii offensive coordinator Jordan Wynn to the Beehive state.
Brenner, a year older than Wynn, regularly invited the quarterback to his home to watch Utah football as Brenner was preparing to enter college.
"I was always in his ear saying ‘Hey man, Utah is pretty good,’" Brenner said. "Eventually, after awhile of me being around him, he decommitted (from Colorado) and came here."
During his time at Utah, Brenner played in every single game, starting every game on the offensive line during his junior and senior seasons — a truly remarkable feat considering the neck injury Brenner suffered during the third quarter of the 2011 season finale vs. Colorado that necessitated EMT care and an ambulance.
Brenner recovered and played in the Sun Bowl five weeks later.
The NFL draft tracker has Brenner going as a mid-round pick to a zone-blocking team that could start him inside and swing him out to tackle on occasion.
Career highlights/honors: Named Pac-12 second-team all conference in 2012. Two-year starter gave up just two sacks over 25 games as a junior and senior.
Position: Offensive line
Height and weight: 6-5, 310
2012 stats: Started all 13 games and was part of an offensive line that blocked for more than 150 rushing yards per game.
Brown was about the only part of the line that didn't struggle. He was one of two offensive linemen to start all 13 games for the Cougars.
Brown was fortunate to maintain his health in 2012. Furthermore, he is lucky to be alive at all. When he was 4 years old, his house caught fire. As Brown's parents rushed everyone outside, the 4-year-old Brown ran and hid in an upstairs closet. He is only alive today because his father came and rescued him, suffering serious burns in the process.
Now a 310-pound, legitimate draft prospect, Brown is optimistic and realistic about what will transpire in the coming days.
“My agent’s heard different things from different teams. Some teams really like me. Some teams aren’t really interested,” Brown said.
“At the end of the day, it’s out of my control and it’s whatever team wants to take a chance on me. I know I can play in the NFL. I’ve worked really hard and I feel like wherever I’m drafted, I’m going to make that team better.”
Career highlights/honors: Earned FBS All-Independent team honors and Phil Steele All-Independent Second Team honors for the second-straight year. Earned an invitation to the 2013 East-West Shrine game and NFL scouting combine.
Position: Wide receiver
Height and weight: 6-1, 200
2012 stats: Caught 22 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Averaged 23.4 yards on five kickoff returns.
The receiving leader in 2010 and 2011 had what might be best termed a frustrating 2012 season. At the beginning, Christopher was the undisputed leader of the receivers, and coaches were working with him to refine and enhance his leadership skills.
Seven games into the year, the story had completely changed. Christopher's average yardage per reception was 11.1, well off his career average of more than 16. He fumbled a pitch at the goal line and tipped a ball into the waiting hands of a defender vs. Oregon State.
Christopher has the body of an NFL receiver. His large frame and strong hands are ideal for the pros. He also excels at repairing broken plays and turning them into positive yardage for his team. Scouts, however, are concerned about his speed, namely, that he doesn't have enough of it.
The NFL draft tracker has him going as a mid-round pick, as long as the NFL team that drafts him believes he'll be able to create significant separation on his routes.
Career highlights/honors: Led the Utes in receiving yards as a sophomore and as a junior. Named the Sun Bowl Most Valuable Special Teams Player in 2011. Converted quarterback was the 2007 Nevada Player of Year as a high school senior.
Height and weight: 5-11, 186
2012 stats: 64 tackles, five interceptions, 17 pass breakups
Will Davis was the Utah State corner who tipped the ball away on the last play against the University of Utah to seal an overtime victory, the first for the Aggies against their southern rival in 15 years.
Davis is a relatively inexperienced talent, but talent is certainly something he has a lot of. He played one year in high school, rode the pine at Division-II school Western Washington University, transferred to De Anza Junior College in California, then earned a scholarship at Utah State University, where he led the team in interceptions and pass breakups.
His athleticism, work ethic and ball instincts should be enough to land him somewhere in the fourth to fifth round according to most draft prognosticators. USU Head coach Matt Wells didn’t coach Davis last season, being the offensive coordinator, but says he saw plenty of him causing problems for his offense in practice.
“With Willie (Davis) it’s all about confidence,” Wells said. “He is a workaholic and will do everything he can to master his craft.”
Career highlights/honors: Named third-team All-America by CBSSports.com, fourth-team All-America by Phil Steele and honorable mention All-America by SI.com. Selected first-team All-WAC. Won WAC Defensive Player of the Week twice (Nov. 5, Nov. 26). Invited to Senior Bowl and NFL scouting combine.
Position: Return specialist
Height and weight: 5-10, 172
2012 stats: Set an NCAA record by returning four kickoffs 100 yards for touchdowns. Set another mark with five 100-yard returns in his career.
Dunn will be remembered for years to come at the University of Utah. He returned four kickoffs for touchdowns during 2012, and his second return in a single game resulted in the team's fifth victory of the season against Colorado, 42-35.
“I can’t for the life of me figure out why they kicked to Reggie Dunn,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said at the time. “But I’m glad they did.”
Dunn was as electric — and as fast — as lightning during Utah's pro day. He ran a 4.26 40-yard dash, had a 36-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot-1 measurement on the broad jump and performed 17 reps in the 225-pound bench press.
"I hope a team likes me and they end up picking me up,” Dunn said. “I think I did pretty good overall."
Dunn's draft prospects are based almost entirely on his potential as a kick return specialist. If he doesn't get drafted, it's likely he'll sign as an undrafted free agent.
Career highlights/honors: All-America kick returner in 2012. Received the 2012 College Football Performance Award Kickoff Returner Trophy and was the CFPA’s National Special Teams Player of the Week twice.
Position: Offensive line
Height and weight: 6-5, 307
2012 stats: Started in 10 games, playing both guard and center.
As was mentioned previously with Brown, 2012 wasn't exactly the best sales pitch for BYU offensive linemen hoping to crack the NFL draft, but Braden Hansen's consistency as a four-year starter for the Cougars should help in that regard.
Hansen offers an intriguing combination of length and ability to get down quickly for his position, something that has NFL.com's draft tracker pegging him as a "potential late pick."
"I think Braden Hansen and Braden Brown are both guys you think of in the middle of the draft in that fifth- or sixth-round area," Kiper Jr. said on a conference call earlier this month.
Career highlights/honors: Named to Phil Steele All-Independent First Team and FBS All-Independent Team honorable mention.
Height and weight: 6-2, 220
2012 stats: Hoke threw for 2,065 yards and 13 touchdowns during a difficult 2-9 season. He also ran for 540 yards and three scores.
QB Mike Hoke struggled to find his targets consistently (57.8 percent of his passes found their intended receivers), but that may have been due to a lack of a clear No. 1 receiving option. Hoke threw at least 20 attempts to four different teammates on the season, with none of them eclipsing the 600-yard receiving mark.
Despite such a wide array of targets, Hoke managed to keep his interceptions under the double-digit mark while showing a decent ability to run the ball when necessary.
Hoke isn't likely to get drafted, and like other local prospects, will need to make opportunities — rather than wait for them — if he hopes to play at a higher level.
Career highlights/honors: Finished with 4,564 career passing yards and 35 touchdown passes.
Height and weight: 5-11, 185
2012 stats: James had a career season with 43 tackles, including 28 solo tackles. It was his first season with the Wildcats that he didn’t record a single interception, however.
The Oklahoma product has shown exceptional quickness — both in short bursts and when running down ball carriers, even when coming from the other side of the field.
It's hard to overlook the decreasing production he suffered during college (three interceptions his sophomore year, one in 2011 and none in 2012). If James, however, can show a team the best of his assignment-shadowing abilities, he may be able to latch on somewhere.
Career highlights/honors: Finished with 98 career tackles, 58 solos and four interceptions.
Height and weight: 5-11, 233
2012 stats: Started all 13 games at middle linebacker, recording 49 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one interception, one fumble recovery and two pass breakups. Recovered a fumble and returned it 23 yards against Weber State.
Whether it was on opposing ball carriers or the BYU program in general, it's hard to do justice to the impact Uona Kaveinga had in his time with the Cougars. Raised in California and an initial USC signee, Kaveinga transferred to BYU to get more playing time, which he quickly earned before paying dividends in return.
The question now is whether his muck-it-up, hard-hitting style that BYU fans came to love can transfer to the pro level. His height is a concern, as is his initial quickness.
Such factors could keep his name from being called in the draft, but NFL.com says "his production and toughness should allow him to make a roster as an inside hammer in a 3-4 system."
Career highlights/honors: Named to preseason Butkus Award Watch List.
Position: Defensive line
Height and weight: 6-5, 300
2012 stats: Recorded 30 tackles, had one fumble recovery and 0.5 sacks.
Defensive tackle Dave Kruger is a player to watch. He is an older brother of Joe and a younger brother of Paul Kruger, who recently signed a lucrative contract with the Cleveland Browns after helping the Baltimore Ravens win the Super Bowl.
“A lot of teams are calling me and Joe,” Dave said. “And I’m getting a little anxious.”
Kruger was an animal during his time at the University of Utah. Kruger started every game for three seasons before suffering a leg infection that sidelined him for the 2011 Sun Bowl.
Kruger played as a defensive tackle, and his younger brother Joe played as a defensive end. Among his most memorable games in 2012 was the rivalry game vs. BYU. In that game, Kruger tallied five tackles and assisted on a sack, his only of the year.
Kruger is likely to be drafted, though not likely to be drafted higher than his younger brother.
Career highlights/honors: Four-year starter. Earned second-team freshman All-America recognition from Rivals.com in 2009.
Position: Defensive end
Height and weight: 6-6, 269
2012 stats: Made 30 tackles with 8 tackles for loss, six sacks, two quarterback hurries and one pass breakup. Returned an interception 24 yards for a touchdown against Northern Colorado.
Defensive end Joe Kruger, also invited to the NFL scouting combine, is in the mix after deciding to give up his senior year of collegiate eligibility.
Kruger compiled six sacks in 2012 to lead the Utes. He also recorded 30 combined tackles — the same exact amount as his brother Dave — during the 2012 campaign.
One of Kruger's strengths during his time with the Utes was his relationship with his older brother Dave — also a likely draftee — on the Utah defensive line. On one occasion, Dave missed a practice due to illness. Line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a said Joe Kruger looked like "a lost puppy" until Dave returned that afternoon.
"And all of a sudden here comes Joe Kruger," Kauha'aha'a said. "So they've got that close bond. That love is there. They're inseparable."
The NFL draft tracker has Joe Kruger going in the first 100 picks, but realistically, Kruger could go anywhere from round two to round six. Regardless, he will almost certainly be drafted.
Career highlights/honors: Two-year starter earned Pac-12 all-conference honorable mention recognition in 2012.
Height and Weight: 5-9, 186
2012 stats: Finished with 22 tackles, five pass breakups, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble.
Ryan Lacy arrived at the University of Utah as a receiver. Former offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig recruited him as a senior. He had played as a receiver virtually every down since middle school.
When Lacy arrived at school, however, the Utes were inundated with receivers and had a comparative dearth at defensive back. He immediately was switched over.
Lacy excels at defensive back because of his quick feet and eyes. He has great instincts for where and when the ball will be thrown.
"He has excellent anticipatory skills and also has the speed, feet, hips and very cat-like quickness," Utah defensive backs coach Sharrieff Shah said.
Lacy's draft prospects are unclear, though he clearly has the skill set to be a player at the next level. If he doesn't get drafted, he'll almost definitely sign a free agent contract somewhere and get invited to a fall camp.
Career highlights/honors: Recovered a fumble for a touchdown against UCLA as a senior. Netted Pac-12 all-conference honorable mention recognition as a junior in 2011.
Position: Defensive tackle
Height and weight: 6-3, 300
2012 stats: Started 10 of 11 games for the Thunderbirds and recorded 48 tackles with 23 solos, including 6.5 sacks.
Cody Larsen, a former Jordan High standout, proved to be as much a terror in the college ranks as he was in high school, garnering at least six sacks in each of his last two years with the Thunderbirds.
Mention of Larsen in mock drafts is scarce at best, though NFLDraftScout.com has him potentially going in the second round. There's something to be said for someone who produces well at each level he plays at, though Larsen may need to make opportunities to prove he can do so at the highest level of all.
Career highlights/honors: Larsen wrapped up his four-year college career with 130 total tackles, 72 solos, 18.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss. He was named to the 2012 FCS All-America team.
Position: Defensive tackle
Height and weight: 6-2, 311
2012 stats: Tallied 42 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, five sacks, four fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
The Utes have some “Star” power in this year’s draft. Defensive lineman Star Lotulelei, a consensus All-American, is expected to go early in the first round Thursday.
"I’m excited for Star and his family. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work, being dedicated to his craft and what he’s doing. This is a payday for him and it should be,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Now he’s got a lot of work ahead of him. That next level is a whole different ballgame as far as the speed and the size of the game, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be an anchor to somebody’s defensive line for a lot of years to come."
Although Lotulelei’s draft status was uncertain after an abnormal heart test at the NFL scouting combine in February, all is well now following extensive testing that has cleared up the situation.
Lotulelei, thus, is expected to be back among the draft elite.
Career highlights/honors: Made six All-America teams and is a two-time first-team Pac-12 all-conference honoree. Won 2011 Morris Trophy as Pac-12’s top defensive lineman.
Height and weight: 5-11, 235
2012 stats: Led team for second-straight year with 102 tackles. Recorded 13.5 tackles for loss. Had four pass breakups and one quarterback hurry.
There's a sense of solidness with Brandon Ogletree, and that's not just because of the last name. Yet another staple of BYU's devastating linebacker group from 2012, nearly half of his team-leading tackles were done alone.
Still, the McKinney, Texas, product hasn't registered much of a blip on mock drafts, if any. If Ogletree doesn't get selected and still has hopes of cracking an NFL roster, he'll likely need to do it the same way he worked his way into BYU's starting unit — by working extremely hard.
Career highlights/honors: Named Phil Steele All-Independent First Team and FBS All-Independent honorable mention.
Height and weight: 6-4, 230
2012 stats: Completed 62 percent of his pass attempts for 3,139 yards and 23 touchdowns.
Brad Sorensen, a California native, made a tough call in 2010, leaving BYU for Southern Utah after it became clear playing time under center would be hard to come by in Cougar blue.
Leaving for a bigger role in a smaller pond paid huge dividends, as Sorensen showed himself capable of leading a pass-first offense with a confident — and more importantly, capable — arm.
Many mock drafts have Sorensen as an encouraging late-round steal, with NFL.com leaving its final verdict:
"The 2011 Great West Offensive Player of the Year has the NFL size and arm to earn himself a late-round grade as a he fights for a spot on a team."
Career highlights/honors: Sorensen had a career completion percentage of 66 percent at SUU. He finished with 9,445 passing yards and 61 passing touchdowns.
Position: Running back
Height and weight: 5-8, 188
2012 stats: Ran for 1,041 yards on 218 carries. Had eight touchdowns rushing.
All of Ute nation is hoping and praying that Kelvin York, Karl Williams, "Bubba" Poole or "Lucky" Radley can play as well as John White IV did wearing Utah crimson. In short, the Utes would have been lost without his consistent play carrying the ball.
Utah won every one of the first 10 games in which White reached at least the 100-yard plateau, though the Utes did lose two of his final three 100-plus yard outings during 2012. Regardless, Utah's winning percentage when White successfully ran the ball was remarkable.
"I think it's just everybody doing their job," White said in 2012. "Everybody doing their one-eleventh, everybody just being on the same page and doing work as a team. That's all it is."
"The Wolfman" holds the single-season rushing record for the Utes. In 2011, he rushed for 1,519 yards to edge out the former record-holder, Carl Monroe, who in 1982 rushed for 1,507 yards.
Many mock drafts don't have White getting drafted, but if he doesn't get drafted, it's likely he'll get invited to camp and could sign as an undrafted free agent.
Career highlights/honors: Became the first Utah running back to reach 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Pac-12 second-team all-conference in 2011. Pac-12 honorable mention selection in 2012.
Position: Running back
Height and weight: 5-8, 195
Any doubts as to whether or not Kerwynn Williams would be able to carry the load Robert Turbin and Michael Smith left behind were quickly extinguished. Williams was flat-out electric in 2012.
Williams, the USU all-time leader in all-purpose yards, leaves behind a substantial legacy of his own as an Aggie feature back. If drafted, he will be the third Aggie running back to be drafted in the last two years.
Williams showed well at the NFL Combine with a 4.48 40-yard dash, leaving CBS Sports’ Gil Brandt to describe him as “quick as a hiccup.” NFL scouts will have concerns about his smaller size, coming in at just 5-foot-8, but his varied skill set could make him a sleeper in the later rounds.
“He deserves everything he gets. He’s a talented kid and a better person,” Aggie head coach Matt Wells said. “His skill set is very desirable in the NFL. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He is an excellent blocker and he can even go back and field some kickoffs and punts.”
2012 stats: 1,512 yards rushing, 697 yards receiving. 20 total touchdowns
Career highlights/honors: Won WAC Offensive Player of the Week on Sept. 24. Ran for 235 yards and three touchdowns to be named MVP of the 2012 Famous Idaho Potatoes Bowl. Named honorable mention All-America by SI.com. Set Utah State and WAC marks for all-purpose yards at 6,928. Invited to NFL scouting combine.