Kruger, Smith head to NFL draft early

By Christopher Kamrani, Asst. Sports Editor

The Utah football team is paying the price of success.

After losing offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and defensive coordinator Gary Andersen to other programs, No. 2 Utah is losing two of its star defensive players.

Sophomore defensive end Paul Kruger and junior cornerback Sean Smith have forgone their remaining years of college eligibility at the U to enter the NFL Draft in April. Both players were all-Mountain West Conference first-team selections and helped lead the No. 11 ranked defense to a perfect season and an upset win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Although he’s a sophomore, Kruger is able to declare for this year’s draft on account of his redshirt year, which was spent during the 2004-2005 season when Kruger came to Utah as a quarterback. Players are not eligible for the draft until they are three years removed from high school.

Smith, a 6-foot-3-inch, 214-lb. junior from Pasadena, Calif., has relinquished his final year of eligibility after a stellar season. Smith finished the year leading the Utes in interceptions with five and pass breakups with nine. He also chipped in 45 total tackles on the year and forced the win-clinching fumble when he sacked John Parker Wilson in the Sugar Bowl.

Kruger, the 6-foot-5, 265-lb. native of Orem was a main staple in the Utes’ run to a 13-0 record and an impressive 31-17 win over No. 7 Alabama in New Orleans.

“This past year I have been honored to be a part of this very special group of teammates and coaches at the University of Utah,” Kruger said in a statement. “I have cherished what has been my amazing college experience. Finishing this 2008 football season undefeated and having the privilege to get to play under someone as special as coach Kyle Whittingham has been a lifelong dream fulfilled.”

Kruger anchored an impressive defensive line. Kruger and Utah’s front four were ranked No. 11 in rush defense, holding opponents to an average of 99.2 yards per game on the ground. His season was eye-opening for his potential at the next level as he led the Utes in tackles for loss with 16.5 and sacks with 7.5 on the season.

Kruger’s season stat line was as versatile as anyone’s in the country as he finished fifth on the Utes in total tackles with 61 on the year. He also had an interception against archrival BYU, seven pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

“This decision is one of the toughest that I have ever had to make,” Kruger said. “As I reflect on the University of Utah, my teammates, all of my coaches, the football staff and most importantly the Utes fans…I am filled with humility and deep gratitude. These past years at Utah have been a tremendous learning and growing experience for me. I want to thank everyone at the university and all the Utes everywhere for their support.”

Both Smith and Kruger helped the Utes to a 13-0 season, capping it off with the Sugar Bowl victory over the Crimson Tide with a memorable defensive performance against an Alabama squad that averaged 196.5 yards rush per game. Utah held Alabama to 31. Smith and Kruger combined for 11 tackles. Each had one tackle for a loss and Smith’s lone sack of the season came late in that game.

Whittingham addressed the situation of losing two of his best players and issued a statement, saying, “We appreciate Paul and Sean’s hard work and dedication to the University of Utah football program. They have been instrumental to our success and, although we are sorry to see them leave, we wish them nothing but the best in their NFL endeavors. They will always be a part of the Utah football family.”

Both Smith and Kruger have been projected by many college football analysts as first-round or early second-round picks and are now in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., preparing for the draft at Perfect Combination training center.

Other Utes that have hired agents in hopes of finding a spot on an NFL roster include senior quarterback Brian Johnson, receivers Brent Casteel and Freddie Brown, and running back Darrell Mack.

As it stands, Utah will have 11 starters returning from 2008, four on offense and seven on defense.

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Tyler Cobb

Sean Smith, the Utes junior cornerback, celebrates the perfect 13-0 season. Smith will not play his senior season instead Smith will enter the NFL draft.