Following the post-grads: Ex-Utes get shot to shine on a larger stage

The early stages of 2005 presented an impossibly tough act to follow for Chris Hill and the Utah Athletics Department.

By May-after a dominant Fiesta Bowl victory and the basketball team’s Sweet-16 appearance-the focus of many Ute fans had already shifted to the national scene, where a handful of prominent Ute post-grads became the center of our attention.

Which is not to say that Kyle Whittingham and Ray Giacoletti haven’t done a respectable job with their teams of late, only that the exploits of our departed triumvirate-Andrew Bogut, Alex Smith and Urban Meyer-have made for the most compelling national sports stories from the state of Utah over the past eight months or so.

Meyer, charged with the unenviable task of turning things around at Florida, recently capped an up-and-down season with an impressive Outback Bowl win over Iowa. A late-season loss to Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks knocked Florida out of SEC Championship contention, but the Gators did manage to win all three of their major rivalry games (Tennessee, Florida State, Georgia).

Alex Smith’s first season as the savior of the 49ers was no more or less of a success than you would expect from the quarterback of the NFL’s least talented offensive unit. While his rookie numbers (1 TD, 11 INTs) are historically atrocious, he still showed marked improvement in each of his last five starts after returning from a nagging ankle injury. Smith was an adequate field general in week 16 and 17 wins (28-of-45 for 290 yards) over St. Louis and Houston. Ironically, however, those two wins knocked San Fran out of the Reggie Bush sweepstakes and prevented a reunion of the high school teammates.

For his part, Andrew Bogut has lived up to expectations as a potential future All-Star center with flashes of outstanding rebounding instincts (17 in just his second NBA game) and the shooting efficiency (53 percent) of a much more experienced center. To boot, he’s also hit a handful of clutch shots and endeared himself to Bucks fans by wearing a goofy plastic mask to protect his broken nose through the first couple of months of the season that made him look like a scavenging bird while crashing the boards.

Those big three weren’t the only ex-Utes undergoing a major change of scenery this past year. Ex-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford won himself a promotion with a head coaching position at Mountain West Conference rival UNLV but failed to improve upon 2004’s dismal 2-9 record. Sanford figures to improve once he’s able to bring in his own recruiting classes, which will be (presumably) better suited to running the spread option offense. On a whole, the spread option itself graduated to another level in 2005, as No. 12 Oregon and No. 5 West Virginia implemented Meyer’s offense with great proficiency.

The Carolina Panthers’ Steve Smith hasn’t been a Ute for a while now, but he graduated himself in 2005-to NFL superstar status. Smith won the Comeback Player of the Year award after leading the league with 103 receptions and 1,563 yards and got off to a great start in the playoffs by scoring two touchdowns in Carolina’s Wild Card win over the Giants on Sunday.

Some figures from 2005 glory didn’t quite make the leap, obviously. Steve Savoy, Paris Warren and Ute defensive leader Morgan Scalley failed to find a place with an NFL squad. Others are still a little way away from pursuing professional careers elsewhere. Steve Fifita, Eric Weddle, John Madsen, Travis LaTendresse, the Boone brothers, Quinton Ganther, Johnnie Bryant and Luke Nevill-among others-all figure to take a shot at the next level when they’re done at the U.

Still others are on their way in. The recent success of the Utah programs has lent added prestige to the school, and recruiting has become an easier task for coaches. As a result, the U promises to yield even more pro prospects in the future.

And even if it doesn’t continue for a while-hey, even Montreal Expos fans can cheer for the remnants of their 1994 All Star team-2005 gave the Utes a good cast to watch in prime time for years to come.

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