Tapeh taken in 5th round, headed for Philly

Minnesota’s Thomas Tapeh was the second fullback taken and 162nd overall player.

Aaron Blake

Former Minnesota football fullback Thomas Tapeh was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fifth round of the NFL Draft on Sunday.

The 6-foot-1-inch, 230-pound native of Liberia was the 30th pick of the round, 162nd overall, in the two-day draft held Saturday and Sunday at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Tapeh was the second fullback taken in the draft. Arizona State’s Mike Karney was selected by New Orleans just six picks before Tapeh.

Tapeh said he got a call at his apartment from Philadelphia coach Andy Reid at Sunday at about 1 p.m. asking him if he would like to be an Eagle.

“I said I’d love to be an Eagle,” said Tapeh, who attended Johnson High School in St. Paul. “He said look at the (television) screen. I looked, and my name came up. It was a blessing.”

In his four years with the Gophers, Tapeh rushed for 1,958 yards, good for 12th on the all-time Minnesota rushing list. But he might have found his way to the NFL by taking on more of a blocking role this past season.

Sophomore Marion Barber III and freshman Laurence Maroney got the bulk of the carries, each gaining more than 1,000 yards. But Tapeh was throwing lead blocks that coach Glen Mason said were gathering the attention of NFL scouts during the season.

The Gophers finished with the third-best rushing attack in the nation, gaining 289.2 yards on the ground per game.

“As the years went on, I became an overall better football player,” Tapeh said. “A lot of players can run. I learned I can catch and how to block. That’s three things that are working for me. I thank Minnesota for doing that.

“When all was said it done, it was for the best.”

Tapeh is the 13th Minnesota player to be drafted since Mason took over the program in 1997. Last season, cornerback Michael Lehan was selected by the Cleveland Browns, also in the fifth round.

The last time a Minnesota running back was selected was in 2000, when tailback Thomas Hamner was taken in the sixth round, 171st overall, by the Eagles.

Tapeh is tied with Barber for fourth on Minnesota’s all-time rushing touchdowns list with 24.

He said he will go to Philadelphia on Thursday and participate in a rookie minicamp through Sunday, when he will return home.

“I’m excited; but I’m also patient,” Tapeh said. “I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen, but I’m really excited about it.”

Utecht, Ward sign with Colts

Former Gophers tight end Ben Utecht and free safety Eli Ward both went undrafted on Sunday, but signed free agent contracts with Indianapolis.

Utecht’s agent, Chris Murray, said Utecht agreed on a two-year contract.

“They just love him there, and he’s got a great opportunity with the kind of upside he’s got,” Murray said. “You couldn’t pick a better man than (Colts coach and former Minnesota football player) Tony Dungy.”

Utecht was an All-Big Ten performer last season and owns the Minnesota career record for receiving yards by a tight end (1,211). He also ranks 10th on the Gophers’ all-time receptions list with 83 career catches.

Ward led the Gophers in tackles the last two seasons and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection last year. Ward was also the recipient of the team’s Carl Eller Award, given to the team’s most outstanding defensive player, the past two seasons.

Utecht’s draft status was uncertain heading into the draft due to a sports hernia injury suffered at the end of the 2003 season.

“This was one of the toughest weekends of my life,” Utecht said in a statement.

Colts president Bill Polian said in a statement Utecht might need surgery and have to miss this season.