There is an element of simple mathematics involved in football, specifically as it relates to matters of organizing and maintaining a depth chart at a particular position.
The situation at the two safety positions at the University of Utah this month is a prime example.
Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham has consistently said that he has four players legitimately vying for two spots: senior Vonte Davis, University of Washington transfer Brandon McKinney, second-year freshman Kamo’i Latu, and three-star true freshman Cole Bishop.
How the simple math involving Davis, McKinney, Latu, and Bishop shakes out is the biggest question for a Utes defense that, while younger, should again be one of the Pac-12′s best.
Among the four, McKinney has the most intrigue.
McKinney played in 44 games across four seasons for the Huskies, his lone start coming in the 2019 Rose Bowl in place of the injured Tyler Rapp. That level of experience makes him the most-seasoned safety on the roster. The fact McKinney’s 44 games of experience came for another Pac-12 program is a nice perk for defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley and Whittingham.
Whittingham has refused to pigeonhole the four candidates as free safeties or strong safeties, but for what it’s worth, Davis started all five games in 2020, standing as one of the pleasant surprises for the Utes on that side of the ball. Furthermore, McKinney indicated Wednesday after practice that he feels a little more comfortable at strong safety.
If Davis hangs on to his free safety spot, and McKinney emerges as the starter at strong safety, it gives a combined 77 games of Power Five experience. Davis played in all 28 games between 2018 and 2019, but most of that came on special teams.
Conversely, Bishop has never played in a college game, while Latu played in all five games in 2020, though on special teams. After a promising freshman season in 2020, Nate Ritchie is on his two-year LDS mission, while RJ Hubert is, at best, doubtful to play this season after re-injuring his surgically repaired knee early in the April 17 spring game.
“I’m really trying to take in every moment,” McKinney said. “This is my last year, so I want to go out with a bang. New place, new system, but fall camp always has that same feeling as far as the camaraderie of the team. I’m just trying to take everything in and embrace every moment out here.”
How much Bishop ultimately figures into Scalley’s plans is another point of defensive emphasis, partially because Whittingham has been quite complimentary of the Peachtree City, Ga., native’s play through two weeks of camp.
Bishop is a prime example of the difficulties of recruiting in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the NCAA instituted a 14-month recruiting dead period beginning at the start of the pandemic, Bishop, like thousands of Class of 2021 recruits across all sports, never took a visit to campus.
To that end, credit Scalley for selling Bishop on the merits of playing safety at Utah. Scalley himself was an All-American safety in 2008 for Whittingham, while the program’s recent past includes three defensive backs getting picked within the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL draft.
“I started talking to Coach Scalley, and I didn’t really know much about Utah football beforehand,” said Bishop, who enrolled in January, in time for spring practice. “I did some research, really liked it, but I didn’t get a chance to come out and visit, which was unfortunate. It was a little spontaneous, a little risky coming here, but it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”