Philadelphia Eagles select Tapeh in NFL draft

Golden Gophers fullback Thomas Tapeh was picked in the fifth round, 162nd overall, of this weekend's NFL draft. Ben Utecht and Eli Ward signed free agent contracts with Indianapolis. Tapeh is the 13th Gopher to be selected in the NFL draft in the Glen Mason era.

The Philadelphia Eagles selected Gopher running back Thomas Tapeh (St. Paul, Minn. / Johnson HS) with the 30th pick of the fifth round on the second day of the 69th annual National Football League Draft held in The Theater at the Madison Square Garden in New York. Tapeh was the second fullback taken in the draft and the 162nd overall pick.

Tapeh is the 13th Gopher to be selected in the NFL Draft since Glen Mason became head coach in 1997. This also marks the sixth time in the past seven seasons under Mason that the Gophers have had a player selected in the NFL Draft. Former Gopher cornerback Michael Lehan was also a fifth-round selection in last season's NFL Draft.

Tapeh came to the Gophers as a highly touted running back out of St. Paul Johnson High School. He battled through numerous injuries early in his career to have a productive final two seasons with the Gophers, and was the lead blocker for one of the best running attacks in the nation. Much of the success of Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney was in part because of the blocking of Tapeh and a highly talented offensive line. Tapeh, however, proved to be a capable ball carrier when called on, and was a powerful, bruising back who was the perfect change of pace from Barber and Maroney.

Tapeh finished his career at Minnesota ranked 12th on the school's all-time rushing chart with 1,958 yards and is tied with Marion Barber III for fourth on the school's all-time rushing touchdown list with 24. He is also tied for fifth all-time in season rushing touchdowns with 11, which he accomplished in 2003.

Tapeh is looking forward to what will transpire in Philadelphia.

"I feel really blessed," Tapeh said. "It was a long, long journey. A long wait – but all good things come to an end. I am done at the ‘U' now, and I want to thank Minnesota for everything. I want to thank Coach Mason and the staff and everybody. Now it is time to move on and I am looking forward to that. I am looking forward to my next experience."

Tapeh becomes the first Gopher running back drafted since Thomas Hamner was also chosen by Philadelphia as the 171st overall selection in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. That was the last time the Eagles drafted a Minnesota player.

Tapeh moves to a team that has been to the NFC championship game each of the past two seasons. Led by All-Pro quarterback and with the recent addition of volatile, albeit talented receiver Terrell Owens, Tapeh could have a chance to be a part of one of the most talented teams in the NFC. But he is taking nothing for granted, and will continue to work hard to prove that he belongs.

"I am going there to prove to them what I can do," Tapeh said. "Even when I came here I had to prove myself. You always have to prove yourself. Now I just have to start over again. Start over from scratch. I am ready to go."

Gopher tight end Ben Utecht (Hastings, Minn. / Hastings HS) and free safety Eli Ward (Akron, Ohio / Garfield HS) signed free agent deals with the Indianapolis Colts at the conclusion of the draft.

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 past 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 played, 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, "but it may be a blessing in disguise that I am going to the Colts since I have a personal relationship with (head coach) Tony Dungy."

"He (Utecht) may not play this year because he may need surgery," Colts President Bill Polian said, "but in our view, we're getting a first-day player."

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