At multiple points during spring football practice, University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham made clear that he plans to hit the NCAA Transfer Portal for help at wide receiver.
Whittingham’s desire to hit the portal this offseason has everything to do with depth at the position, or lack thereof, after Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua opted to transfer within 24 days of each other back in February. Whittingham, who will begin his 17th season at the helm in Salt Lake City on Sept. 2 vs. Weber State, will seek reinforcements for either Charlie Brewer or Cameron Rising at quarterback, but in fairness, there are some in-house options, some less heralded than others.
Redshirt juniors Britain Covey and Jaylen Dixon and junior Solomon Enis are proven commodities, so the depth question begins at the No. 4 spot. In the days leading up to the April 17 spring game, Whittingham said positive things about Devaughn Vele, even going as far as to say the redshirt freshman had control of the fourth receiver spot as spring ball came to a close.
At the spring game, Vele made Whittingham look smart, finishing with four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. A 40-yard second-quarter catch from Brewer was among the offensive highlights of the afternoon as Vele had to shake off a clear defensive pass interference penalty on Vonte Davis down the right sideline to finish the play.
“The biggest thing I’ve been trying to learn is just how to do my job, understanding the offense,” Vele said after the spring game. “We have a lot of playmakers on the offense, so I just want to add a little mix to it however I can. Spring was an opportunity for me and some other guys to find our place in what can be a really good team this fall.”
Added Brewer: “I have very high expectations for him, I feel like he is a complete receiver. He has size, he can jump out of the gym, really go up and high-point the ball. I feel like he really is a big-play receiver, and I think he’s going to have a huge fall.”
Vele played in all five games during the truncated, pandemic-impacted 2020 season, but had just two catches for 12 yards over that span. Vele believes playing in those five games without losing eligibility was important, but he is self-aware enough to admit that “the lights were a little too bright for me.”
From that came a learning experience, which led to a productive spring. Having made an impact during March and April, the key now is to find enough consistency to where he can be a factor come September and beyond.
“I think the biggest thing I need is just having confidence in my play,” Vele said. “I just have to understand that I have a place here at Utah, and I need to step up. With Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua leaving, it leaves a big gap in our team, but guys are ready to step into roles and make an impact. That includes me, so I need to continue to make plays, not just in one practice or in the spring game, but on a consistent basis.”
Beyond Vele No. 4, and before the offensive staff dives back into the portal, Whittingham noted before the spring game that freshmen Money Parks and Caine Savage were in the mix at Nos. 5 and 6.
Parks played in one game last season, while Savage is a converted cornerback who saw action in three games on special teams in 2020. Whittingham was noncommittal about which position Savage would play in 2021, but objectively, it may be hard for him to find time at cornerback, which is well-stocked with young talent at the moment.
Clark Phillips III (freshman) and JaTravis Broughton (sophomore) are penciled in at the two cornerback spots, while Malone Mataele (redshirt sophomore) is a safe bet to get the nod at nickel back.