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Utah Football’s Greatest 12

The Pac 12 Network approached me a couple of weeks back about a documentary series they will be doing for the schools in the Conference called The 12 Greatest: Utah Football. The Network will be doing a special on the best all time players from each school sometime in late 2016 or early 2017.

The Criteria seemed simple, pick the Best 12 players in Utah Football History. The only thing they asked was to judge solely on their college careers. Aside from that just the best 12. When I began the task seemed pretty easy, but to be fair to the project and the people involved it became much more difficult than I anticipated. What metrics do you use? How do you pick one over the other? Going back over a Century of Football wasn’t an easy job. What I tried to do was look at individual performance, team success, honors and lasting impact on the program. I didn’t get caught up in stats because comparing stats from different eras is tough and often not fair to players from years gone by.

In the end I spent about 3 total hours making lists and adding and subtracting from those lists to come up with my “12 Greatest in Utah Football”. My list isn’t perfect (I’m sure of that) and I’ve probably omitted a few players that you might have on your list. But I’m relatively sure I got most of the “greatest” but the order they go in well…..that’s up to you…

12. Erroll Tucker-I needed to have someone from the return game on this list, simply because Utah through the years has had so many great special teams and return specialists. Tucker became the first player in the history of college football to lead the country in both kickoff (29.1) and punt return (24.3) average. He also set an NCAA single-season record for highest combined return average (punts and kicks), averaging 27.2 yards per return in 1985. He was electrifying.

11. Tom Hackett-I also needed to get someone who kicked the football on this list and again Utah has had some dandy’s over the years, but I don’t think they’ve ever had anyone as good or dominant as Hackett kicking “bacon”. Tom Hackett was a two-time Ray Guy Award winner (2014-15) as the country’s best punter and the first Ray Guy Award winner in Utah and Pac-12 history. He was also Utah’s first two-time consensus All-American (unanimous in 2015). A three-time first-team All-Pac-12 punter, Hackett was the only Ute player named to the Pac-12 All-Century Football Team.

10. Roy Jefferson-Jefferson was from an era where you played both ways and he was very good at it. One of the best if not the best player for Utah from 1962-64, which included that great 1964 Liberty Bowl squad. Jefferson had a great career on both sides of the ball for the Utes. As well as being an all-conference performer at split end, he was an All-American on defense. In addition, he also handled kicking duties for the Utes.

9. Jamal Anderson-The “Dirty Bird” from his Atlanta days, still remains one of the most popular Utes of All Time. Anderson spent two years with the Utes under Ron McBride where he was a very powerful runner. His best season came in 1993 when he had 168 carries for 958 yards and 11 touchdowns to go along with 17 receptions for 183 yards and three scores. He was also a key player in the re-birth of Utah Football in the early 90’s under Ron McBride.

8. Star Lotulelei-In a program that has built its reputation on toughness and defensive line play, Star is one of the best of have ever played on the Utah Defensive Line. Lotulelei made six All-America teams as a senior in 2012, including first-team Associated Press (becoming only the second Utah defensive lineman ever to make the A.P. first team). Star won the 2011 Morris Trophy, which is awarded to the Pac-12’s best defensive lineman by vote of the league’s starting offensive linemen.

7. Jordan Gross-One the quietest and most unassuming guys off the field, Jordan Gross was an absolute monster on it. In 15 years of covering and being around Utah Football, he is without question the best offensive lineman I’ve seen wearing Crimson and in my opinion the best of all time. Gross was proclaimed a Consensus All-American in 2002—earning first team honors from the Associated Press, FWAA, Walter Camp, AFCA and The Sporting News’ teams, as well as and Gross was one of three Outland Trophy finalists in 2002 and a unanimous first-team All-Mountain West Conference selection. He did not allow a sack as a junior and senior.

6. Luther Ellis-When I speak to former players and coaches about guys that dominated at the line of scrimmage most always come back to Luther Ellis, who was a key part of the Utah revival in the early 90’s. Elliss was declared a Consensus All-American in 1994 after making the Associated Press, AFCA, FWAA, Scripps Howard and United Press International teams. Elliss led the 1994 squad with nine tackles for loss, while also tallying 78 total tackles, four sacks, two fumble recoveries, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble. A three-time All-WAC selection, he led the conference in sacks as a junior with 10, despite being double-teamed on virtually every play. He recorded a league-high 16 tackles for loss as a sophomore. Elliss still holds the Utah career record for tackles for loss with 47.

5. Devontae Booker-Booker was a big part of Utah’s transition to the Pac 12 Conference and perhaps the biggest part of their offensive success for two of their best seasons in the Pac 12. Booker was the ideal combination of speed, strength, toughness, vision and hands that you would want in a running back. Two-time All-Pac-12 selection was first team in 2014 and second team in 2015 … one of just two Utah players ever to record back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and one of three to rush for 1,000 yards twice in his career … set the school record for career rushing average (120.6) and tied the school record for career 100-yard rushing games (14) … finished third in career rushing yards (2,773)

4. Scott Mitchell-The Big Lefty played for 3 years and not with great team success, but man could he spin the pigskin. His best season came in 1988 when Utah finished 6-5 after he led the nation in passing yards, total yards and passing touchdowns while finishing fourth in total touchdowns and ninth in passing efficiency rating. That year, he completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 4,322 yards and 29 touchdowns. For his Utah career, he still holds the school records for passing yards (8,981) and touchdown passes (69).

3. Alex Smith-Alex Smith didn’t have a long career as a starting QB at Utah, but nobody had a better or more effective run over two seasons under center. Smith was an after thought in many ways when brought into the program by Ron McBride and seen as a backup when Urban Meyer took over. But when starter Bret Elliott broke his wrist early in 2003, Smith seized his opportunity. . Smith posted a 21-1 record in his two-years as Utah’s starting quarterback and led the Utes to a BCS/Fiesta Bowl win.  Smith, a 2004 Heisman Trophy finalist who finished fourth in the balloting, earned National Player of the Year honors from Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. He was a first-team All-American by the FWAA and, and second-team Walter Camp. He became Utah’s first No. 1 NFL Draft pick. In addition to his on-field accomplishments, Smith was outstanding in the classroom. He was named the 2004-05 Academic All-American of the Year for all NCAA sports from a field of over 360,000 athletes.

2. Larry Wilson-He played from 1957-59 and was part of the “two way” era in college football. Wilson was the only back in the last 80 years to earn All-America honors. His best season came in 1959 when he was third-team Williamson All-American and first-team all-conference after he carried the ball 98 times for 559 yards and eight touchdowns. He added 21 receptions for 215 yards and four more scores. His 12 touchdowns from scrimmage were fourth-most in the nation. Wilson also played safety for Utah at a very high level. In fact, it was at this position that he thrived on the next level to become the ONLY Utah player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

1. Eric Weddle-I first saw Eric Weddle as a bright eyed freshman playing for Urban Meyer in 2003. He was sharp and very engaging for a freshman, but more than that he was an outstanding football player. He was the most versatile player I have covered at Utah. He played (and played well) in all three phases. Weddle, one of the most versatile players in NCAA history, became Utah’s third all-time Consensus All-American in 2006. Weddle, named a first-team All-America defensive back by the AFCA,,,, and, was a second-team Walter Camp and Associated Press All-American. Also a two-time MWC Defensive Player of the Year (2005-06), Weddle led the league in interceptions as a senior with seven – returning two picks for touchdowns. I saw him throw a TD against BYU and score 3 TD’s in one game against SDSU, 2 INT and 1 rushing. He is also the only player in Utah history to score on back to back plays. Weddle finished his career with 18 interceptions to rank second all-time at Utah. He continues to be close to the program today.

Coach-Kyle Whittingham-Longevity and Success. Kyle took what Urban established and built on it. The 2008 National Coach of the Year, has participated in more Utah victories than any football coach in school history. As an assistant and head coach, Whittingham has played a role in 180 victories in 22 seasons at Utah. More than half of those have come in 11 years as the head coach, when he is 95-46.  Whittingham has been almost unbeatable in bowl games and his 90-percent bowl winning percentage is the best of any coach in NCAA history. His 9-1 bowl record exceeds the NCAA minimum of seven wins.  Whittingham was the only person involved in all of Utah’s nine consecutive bowl victories from 1999-2009—a bowl streak that is tied for the second-longest in NCAA history.

So there’s my list! Certainly not perfect, but it’s mine. My toughest omissions from the list: Morgan Scalley, Steve Smith, Mike Anderson, John Frank.

Feel free to give me your thoughts!

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  • Bill Riley is a 24 year Radio and Television Broadcast Veteran, spending the last 15 years in the Salt Lake City Market. Riley is the longest tenured employee of ESPN 700, having joined the station in 2004. In addition to hosting the Bill Riley Show from 11 to 2 Monday-Friday, Riley is the Program Director of ESPN 700. Bill Riley has twice been named the Utah Sports Broadcaster of the Year in 2012 and 2015. Riley has been the Play by Play Voice of the University of Utah for 7 years and is entering his 12th season as the Play by Play Voice of Real Salt Lake. Riley is the co-host of Real Sports Live Sunday Nights on ABC-4 Utah.

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