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Monson: Who is the greatest football player ever to come out of BYU, Utah, Utah State?

Published June 10, 2015 3:27 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Picking the greatest among the greats is always a complicated deal. It's also a whole lot of fun. The exercise here isn't to declare any kind of absolute or universal truth, it's to stumble upon relative truth, and roll with it.

Or argue it.

In that spirit, what's presented on this page are/could be the best football players to ever come out of BYU, Utah and Utah State, with three selected, one from each school, covering a span over the last 15 years (from the draft date), and three, one from each school, covering all the years — which is to say, three all-time greats, and, then, from those finalists, the single greatest player ever.



Yeah, it's subjective and unscientific, yet fairly bang on … unless, of course, you disagree. Greatness's definition for this includes the totality of playing days, both in college and in the pros, with more weight given to NFL careers, considering that obviously is where the best football on the planet is played, where the best players are established.

From 2000 to 2015

BYU • Plainly put, there's not much from which to pick, at least compared with the all-timers.

Dennis Pitta might have gotten more consideration had he played over a longer period. He was dominant at tight end for the Cougars, catching 221 balls for 2,883 yards and 21 touchdowns. Drafted in 2010, he was headed for lofty things with the Baltimore Ravens — until a couple of hip injuries interrupted his ascent.

Ziggy Ansah has the best backstory, coming out of Africa without a clue how to put on his gear, then coming on strong during his senior year in Provo. He was drafted by the Lions with the fifth overall pick in 2013, and his future is bright, even though his sample size is short.

Kyle Van Noy was a force for the Cougars, becoming an unparalleled defensive star. But, after being taken by the Lions with the 40th overall selection in 2014, and battling injury during his rookie season, his pro sample size is still shorter.

Then there's Brett Keisel. Not exactly a choice with much flash and panache, but … whose fault is that? Selected in the seventh round of the 2002 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, defensive end Keisel was solid, not spectacular at BYU. But he enjoyed a long pro career that lasted until he was released earlier this year. He was a Pro Bowl selection in 2010 and played for two Steelers teams that won Super Bowls and three that won AFC Championships. He racked up 409 tackles, 30 quarterback sacks, two interceptions and one touchdown — on a 79-yard interception return.

Moreover, he grew the most famous beard in the NFL, a beard that was meant to bring the Steelers luck, but that ended up fetching thousands of dollars when he shaved it annually for charity, donating the money to hospitalized children.

The pick: Keisel.

Utah • This is pretty much a two-man race, maybe a three-man if you include offensive tackle Jordan Gross, or four-man, including Alex Smith. But the headliners are safety Eric Weddle and receiver Steve Smith, and there's not much about which to debate, despite the fact that the Utes have put, are putting, many quality players in the NFL.

Weddle was a little bit of everything for the Utes, playing as dominant a role for them from 2003 to 2006 as any player ever. A four-year starter, he played on defense, offense and special teams — as a cornerback, a safety, a running back, a quarterback, a punt and kick returner, a holder and a punter. His starring call in the NFL was as a safety, where he became the league's highest-paid player at that position with the San Diego Chargers. (Ironically, he's in a financial battle with the team as we speak.)

Weddle's flat one of the league's best safeties. Selected in the second round of the 2007 draft, he has been named as an All-Pro five times. He's just a terrific football player.

Steve Smith was taken in the third round of the 2001 draft by Carolina, after showing huge skills at Utah. Those skills have served him well as a pro, where over 14 years he has caught 915 passes for 13,262 yards and 73 touchdowns. In the playoffs, he's caught 59 passes for 1,001 yards and nine touchdowns. In his rookie season, he made the Pro Bowl as a special teams player. In 2005, he led the NFL in catches, yards and touchdowns. And he is the Panthers all-time leading receiver.

The pick: Steve Smith.

Utah State • Bobby Wagner jumps out as the best Aggie in recent memory. Receiver Kevin Curtis deserves a courtesy mention. But Wagner is one of the best linebackers in the NFL, maybe the finest inside 'backer, and he was just as good in Logan. After compiling 445 tackles in four years at USU, he was selected in the second round of the 2012 draft by Seattle, and since then has been a leader of the best defense in the NFL. In three seasons, Wagner has rolled up 365 tackles and played a major part in two Super Bowls, one a victory and the other a loss. His lateral quickness from sideline to sideline gives the Seahawks D all sorts of versatility.

The pick: Wagner, easy.

All-time

BYU • The old standards haven't changed for the Cougars, with Jim McMahon — sorry, Ty, but it's true — as the best quarterback ever while playing at BYU.

Although Bart Oates wasn't drafted after his senior year, he played for three Super Bowl-winning teams, two with the New York Giants and one with the 49ers. He also won two USFL titles with the Philadelphia Stars. He was a five-time Pro Bowler.

Todd Christensen had a fantastic career as a tight end with the Oakland/L.A. Raiders, winning two Super Bowls and being named to the Pro Bowl five times.

But Steve Young's top accomplishments are not arguable, the Hall of Famer having thrown for 33,124 yards and 232 touchdowns. He also ran for 43 touchdowns, including the zigzagging 49-yard game-winner against the Vikings that became a marquee moment. His career passer rating is a ridiculous 96.8, the third-highest ever. After wasting away in the USFL and in Tampa Bay for a couple of seasons, Young's career soared after Bill Walsh brought him in to wait his turn behind Joe Montana in San Francisco and, well, you know the story. His best game came when he threw for six TDs in winning the Super Bowl with the Niners at the end of the 1994 season.

The pick: Young.

Utah • Weddle and Steve Smith get more consideration here. But don't forget Roy Jefferson, a three-time Pro Bowl receiver, and, more significantly, Larry Wilson, a defensive back who played for the Utes in the late 1950s. Wilson perfected the safety blitz back when that was an NFL innovation and made eight Pro Bowls. He also was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Other Utes of note include Pro Bowl defensive tackle Luther Elliss, Jamal Anderson, an All-Pro running back, and All-Pro offensive tackle Gross. Others might join this discussion as the years pass by, such as DT Star Lotulelei.

The pick: Steve Smith, again.

Utah State • There's really only one possibility. That's not an indictment on Utah State football. It speaks to the greatness of a single player.

Merlin Olsen was an All-American and Outland Trophy winner as a defensive tackle for the Aggies. He was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft by the L.A. Rams in 1962 and went on to make the Pro Bowl 14 straight seasons as a part of the Rams' famous "Fearsome Foursome" defensive front that included Rosey Grier, Deacon Jones and Lamar Lundy. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1982. One of the best defensive tackles in the history of football, not to mention notable acting stints in "Little House on the Prairie" and "Father Murphy."

The pick: You Know Who.

And the greatest football player ever to emerge from any of the Utah schools in any era?

The pick: Olsen. If you saw the man play, you know why.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

 

 

 

 

 

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