Hoping to become a receiver in big-time college football, R.J. Hubert came to Utah’s youth camp from a small town in southern Nevada and spent part of the day auditioning for Ute safeties coach Morgan Scalley. His performance in defensive drills was memorable, not necessarily for the right reasons.
“Honestly, I couldn't backpedal for my life,” Hubert recalled, “and I couldn't make cuts for my life.”
He left the practice field feeling frustrated, wishing he could have made a better impression. “I didn't really think I did great,” Hubert said this week, “but I remember saying the very words to my mom in front of the facility: 'If this school offers me, I'd commit on the spot.' ”
That’s exactly what happened four months later. Hubert became Moapa Valley’s first high-profile recruit, from a school with about 30 varsity football players and a graduating class of 120.
In October 2015, when the Utes were unbeaten and freshman receiver Britain Covey was making big plays, stories about Hubert’s commitment suggested he may become another Covey. Four years later, he looks like the next Terrell Burgess.
NO.15 UTAH AT OREGON STATE
When • Saturday, 6 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network
In the succession plan of Ute safeties, seniors Julian Blackmon and Burgess have followed Marquise Blair and Corrion Ballard. Utah again will need two new starters in 2020, and Hubert sure looks like one of them.
He has come a long way from Moapa Valley. You've probably seen the road signs, or maybe even pulled off I-15 to dine at Sugar's Home Plate or The Inside Scoop. The high school is in Overton, Nev., 8 miles off the freeway, about halfway between Mesquite and Las Vegas. Hubert moved to Moapa Valley – his actual hometown is Logandale – with his mother and stepfather, Anne and Phillip Brown, at age 9. He endorses a nurturing area that “let me know what it's like to be a family.”
Zach Hymas, Hubert’s high school quarterback, is now a Utah walk-on after transferring from Weber State. Moapa Valley has “a smalltown, blue-collar feel,” Hymas said. “That was the mentality everywhere: Everything you got was because you earned it.”
As a sophomore, having served a church mission before enrolling at Utah, Hubert has started two games this season, with impressive results. He replaced an injured Blackmon against Idaho State and played as a third safety vs. Washington State’s pass-oriented scheme, making 13 total tackles in two games.
That’s good production for a player who thought of himself almost strictly as a receiver in high school, while playing in a simple defensive scheme because his team always needed him on the field. “He would have played defensive line if we asked him,” said his coach, Brent Lewis. “HIs parents just raised a great kid ... so coachable, so humble.”
And “unstoppable” as a receiver, according to Hymas: “I remember, teams sometimes would put two guys on him. If nothing else, you'd just throw it up just to watch him go make a play. And he always would.”
The natural question was how Hubert could perform in the Pac-12. His other reported scholarship offers were from Army, Nevada, Northern Arizona and Weber State, after he attended camps at BYU, Utah State and Boise State, in addition to Utah.
“There always is a concern when you’re playing at a small school [about] the level of competition, how the player will project at the college level without having that really stiff competition,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We took a shot on him … so far, he’s been a really good ‘take’ for us.”
Utah liked Hubert's 6-foot height and his track and field performances as a high jumper, long jumper, sprinter and hurdler. He signed as a receiver, but Whittingham knew he someday may become a defensive player, as often happens in Utah's program.
“Honestly, R.J.'s always been one of those guys that we knew could play safety.” Blackmon said. “It was just a matter of buying into the position, because he wanted to be a receiver.”
As a junior, Hubert caught 49 of Hymas' passes for 964 yards and 14 touchdowns as Moapa Valley won Nevada's Division 1-A state championship. The Pirates rallied from 22 points behind in the fourth quarter to beat Desert Pines 42-36 in overtime, with Hymas and Hubert connecting for the winning touchdown.
Hubert “was a freak in that game, just made some amazing plays,” Lewis said. “Throughout the year, he was a threat every time he touched it.”
Playing with a new quarterback, Hubert led Moapa Valley to another state title game as a senior, catching 41 passes for 783 yards, running 73 times for 727 yards and accounting for 24 touchdowns. He also intercepted six passes for the second year in a row, while basically playing center field in a standard zone scheme.
Utah's coverages are much more complicated, but Hubert is learning well and keeps improving. He belongs in Power Five football. “I knew I was a good athlete in the town I lived in,” Hubert said, “but I didn't know how that would translate over to college, just because I hadn't been exposed to a large pool of athletes.”
When he joined the program last year and went through physical testing, though, “I realized how actually competitive I can be at this level and and that kind of reassured me and gave me a lot of confidence to actually play when I got out on the field.”
Hubert spent the 2018 season playing mostly on the scout team in practice and on special teams in games. His role has increased significantly this season, with more to come in the next two years.