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Staying or going? A look at where some Utah football players plan to be next season

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) runs back an intercepted pass to score, putting the Utes up 14-0 over the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

Utah Utes linebacker Devin Lloyd (0) runs back an intercepted pass to score, putting the Utes up 14-0 over the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Ahead of the 2021 season, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Devin Lloyd would be the highest-drafted linebacker to ever come through Utah. Lloyd was always on borrowed time for the Utes with an NFL career seemingly a lock for the star linebacker.

The consensus All-American, who was one first-team vote away from a unanimous selection, proved to be one of the best linebackers in the country and one worthy of a potential first-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft.

In 13 games this season, Lloyd had 106 total tackles, including 22 tackles for loss and eight sacks, and four interceptions. Two of those interceptions were returned for a touchdown, including a pick-six interception against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game en route to a conference title.

Lloyd highlights a class of 19 players that walked on senior day that included several underclassmen who will have a chance to pursue an NFL career. While other players could still decide later to pursue a professional career, the players that walked were seemingly the ones expected to be in the conversation to leave the university.

The listed seniors for the 2021 season include Vonte Davis, Hauati Pututau, Brandon McKinney, Ali'i Niumatalolo, Viane Moala, Bamidele Olaseni, Tyrone Young-Smith, Keegan Markgraf and Theo Howard. The underclassmen that walked are listed below.

NFL bound

Britain Covey, Jr., WR

After nearly a decade β€” or however long it's been β€” at the university, Covey announced his intention on Twitter to pursue an NFL dream on Dec. 10. The shifty receiver and punt returner said playing collegiately was a lifelong dream, but he hopes to have a shot at the highest league after a stellar career at Utah.

Nick Ford, Jr., OL

Ford has long been expected to leave after the 2021 season. The stabilizing offensive lineman even said that was his intention ahead of the season. And on Dec. 22, Ford announced his intention to pursue the NFL on Twitter. Among his talent on the offensive line, Ford is known for his charitable work with children and his ability to cook up some delicious mac & cheese β€” maybe a food truck is in his future after an NFL career, too.

Cole Fotheringham, Jr., TE

One of three tight ends that changed the makeup of Utah's offense, Fotheringham has been a blocking force for the Utes. The 6-foot-4 tight end announced his intention to pursue an NFL career on Instagram on Dec. 13.

Devin Lloyd, Jr., LB

Barring some major change, Lloyd was always going to be NFL bound after the 2021 season. The consensus All-American proved to be one of the best linebackers in the country and is expected to be a first-round draft pick in the upcoming draft β€” maybe even top 10 according to some projections. Lloyd did not officially announce his departure from the university, but he accepted a Senior Bowl invitation on Nov. 16, indicating what everyone knew. Lloyd said his focus remains on the season, even with a promising professional career on the horizon.

TJ Pldeger, Jr., RB

After only one season with the Utes, Pledger said he's "betting on myself" and will pursue an NFL career. The Oklahoma transfer announced his decision on Twitter on Dec. 9 after a strong season as one of three primary backs in Utah's offense. Pledger's decision to leave early was a bit surprising, but he's had a solid couple years at the collegiate level.

Nephi Sewell, Jr., LB

As an underrated linebacker coming off a broken neck, Sewell did more for himself in the last few years than anybody else. Sewell became a stable force at linebacker and proved to be a strong counterpart to Devin Lloyd on a young Utah defense. Sewell announced his intention to pursue an NFL career on Twitter on Dec. 18.

Mika Tafua, Jr., DE

Tafua is never one for the spotlight, but he was one of the most menacing players in the Pac-12 this season and finished as the conference leader with 9.5 sacks β€” 1.5 more than teammate Devin Lloyd. The Hawaiian native is primed to be one of the next Utah defensive linemen to make a name for himself in the league. Tafua announced his decision to pursue an NFL career on Instagram on Dec. 20.

Staying at Utah

Brant Kuithe, Jr., TE

Kuithe was expected to leave after the 2020 season, but a COVID-shortened season and some other factors brought the tight end back to Utah. Kuithe led the team in receiving yards this season and has been a consistent offensive threat for the Utes in the passing game. Kuithe has not announced his future plans, but told media on Dec. 13 that his decision will be made "soon." On Dec. 23, the star tight end posted on Instagram and Twitter a short video with the caption: "Let's run it back." Utah will have one of its most consistent weapons back on the field for one more season.

Dalton Kincaid, Jr., TE

Kincaid had a breakout season for the Utes in 2021 and was one of the best pass catchers on the team, let alone in the deep tight end room. Kincaid walked on senior day, but announced on Dec. 24 on Twitter that he was returning for another season with the Utes. With Kincaid and Kuithe back, that gives offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig consistency and another strong attack with his tight ends.

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