Utah football safety R.J. Hubert being healthy solves one secondary question, but there are more to deal with

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah defensive back R.J. Hubert after team practice October 8, 2019.

As Kyle Whittingham and Morgan Scalley go about the business of replacing an entire University of Utah secondary gone to the NFL, the head coach will readily remind everyone that most of the current secondary options are freshmen and sophomores.

R.J. Hubert qualifies as a veteran for this Utah secondary despite having only 20 games under his belt. Within those 20, only 10 have seen him play on defense and even then, he’s only started three times. Still, Whittingham said Wednesday morning on a Zoom call with reporters that Hubert is the projected starter at one safety spot. That should be celebrated given what Hubert has had to deal with the last 10 months.

Hubert suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon. His status at the start of spring practice and on though the COVID-19 pandemic was a mystery, but Whittingham said on an Oct. 7 Pac-12 coaches call that Hubert was 100% healthy and free of any restrictions.

“I’ll never take for granted the ability to walk, to run, to jump, those things I’ve been doing since I was a little kid, I won’t take those things for granted again,” said Hubert, who lamented the amount of time he had to spend on crutches in the beginning of the rehab process. “I’m really grateful for where I am right now, and I know I can get even better as well.”

Hubert said Wednesday the original goal was to be able to run by the end of spring practice. The remaining 75% of spring practice was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the time everyone reconvened in Salt Lake City in mid-June, Hubert was running, although not at full speed. By the time camp started late last week, Hubert was back to his old form, although Whittingham has continued to preach caution as the junior rounds into form.

“To have him back on the field and healthy is a big plus for us,” Whittingham said. “Nothing is set in stone. We have some talented young guys that are challenging, but having him out there is a stabilizing factor for us. A guy that has been in the system, knows how to line guys up, makes very few assignment errors, that’s good for our defense. By the time this is all said and done, Coach Scalley will have the right guys out there, I have no doubt about that.”

As camp continues to unfold and fully-padded practices commenced for the first time Wednesday afternoon, the question marks surrounding the secondary are beginning to come into better focus.

Whittingham said, to this point, Hubert and senior Vontae Davis are the starting safeties. Like Hubert, Davis has games under his belt, but has not been asked to step into a larger, primary role until now. Davis, a JUCO All-American in his one season at Blinn College in 2017, has played in all 28 games the last two seasons, but has only appeared on defense in eight games, none of them starts.

Both Whittingham and Davis had positive things to say about four-star freshman safety Nate Ritchie, who currently projects as the backup behind Davis at strong safety.

“He’s been coming along nicely,” Davis said. “From my experience, he’s learned the plays faster than I did. When I look at him, he’s one of those players that can be ‘that dude.’”

Sophomore JT Broughton “is probably our No. 1 corner right now,” per Whittingham, while the other projected starting cornerback, junior Bronson Boyd, “hasn’t been out there full time, he’s a little nicked up.” Beyond Boyd, Whittingham singled out sophomore Malone Mataele and highly-touted freshman Clark Phillips III as guys performing well early in camp.

Phillips III is expected to make an immediate impact, potentially at nickel, although Whittingham and cornerbacks coach Sharieff Shah have said Phillips III has been seeing work at both nickel and outside corner.

Whittingham weighs in on Jaylen Dixon transfer

Junior slot receiver Jaylen Dixon announced Monday afternoon he was entering the NCAA Transfer Portal. On Wednesday, Whittingham supported that decision, while clarifying what his previous status was with the program.

“He hasn’t really been with us full time for several months, he’s been going through some issues that he’s trying to work out,” Whittingham said. “He believes that perhaps new surroundings and a fresh start would do him some good and I’m all for that, we’re all for that. We wish success for him and want him to be in a situation that he can thrive in.”

Despite not being with the program full time, Dixon appeared on Utah’s initial depth chart late last week, although he was buried at one receiver spot. In two seasons, Dixon produced, hauling in 56 passes for 932 yards and three touchdowns across all 28 games.

QB decision could come as early as Saturday

Whittingham has said his plan for the three-way quarterback competition was to have three down to two after Utah scrimmages for the first time on Saturday.

That timeline may actually get expedited, even if the public won’t be privy to what’s happening.

Whittingham said Wednesday he still expects to have the situation down to at least two quarterbacks after Saturday, but he did not rule out having his starter in place at that time. That said, Whittingham, unprompted, noted that if a starter is named after Saturday, he is unlikely to announce it until game week.

Given Utah opens Nov. 7 vs. Arizona, game week would begin Nov. 1 or 2.

“We may very well have a starter, at least in-house after Saturday’s scrimmage,” Whittingham said. “Like we said at the start of camp, the sooner we are able to identify that guy, the better.”

South Carolina graduate transfer Jake Bentley, redshirt sophomore Cameron Rising, and redshirt senior Drew Lisk are vying for the job. Bentley and Rising are the presumed main candidates, but Whittingham has been adamant this month that Lisk will get an honest look and first-team opportunities as things progress.