Why Utah football coaches say Cole Bishop is ‘everything you want’ in a safety

And with R.J. Hubert ready to go after two knee injuries since 2019, safety is a position of strength for the Utes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11) tries to recover his fumble as Utah Utes safety Cole Bishop (6) dives for the ball to get possession for Utah, in football action between Utah Utes and Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

As November wore on and the University of Utah football team marched towards its first Pac-12 championship last season, Devin Lloyd had taken note of Cole Bishop.

Lloyd noted that Bishop, who started the final six games at safety while stamping himself as a future star at the position, is a student of the game who takes his preparations seriously and can always be found in the film room.

Six months after Bishop started his first collegiate game at Stanford, nothing much has changed. If anyone needs the Peachtree City, Ga. native after practice, they know where to find him.

“He’s everything you want,” Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley after practice on Thursday afternoon. “You can go in the safety room right now and he’s watching film.”

Added fifth-year senior safety R.J. Hubert: “We just got out of practice and he was like, ‘We’re going to watch practice (film) right now. Let’s figure out how we can get better.’

Had a hamstring issue early last season never occurred, Scalley contends that Bishop would have probably played a bigger role sooner. Had Scalley never gotten his hands on Bishop’s high school film, the three-star recruit likely stays committed to and signs a National Letter of Intent with Duke.

Instead those circumstances did occur. Scalley liked what he saw from Bishop and the process of flipping that commitment from the Blue Devils to the Utes was underway. On Oct. 31, 2020, Bishop committed to Utah. He signed his NIL on Dec. 16, and was on campus for the spring semester, in time to participate in spring practice.

In hindsight, those 2021 spring practices were critical in helping Bishop acclimate to not only college football, but to college. By the time fall camp rolled around, his comfortability level was high. He wound up playing in 10 games, including those six starts, leading all true freshmen on the team with 54 tackles, including nine for a loss and three sacks, to go along with six pass breakups on his way to All-Pac-12 honorable mention honors.

“A lot of guys (freshmen) who don’t come until the summer really don’t start actually playing until fall camp, so getting the four or five weeks of spring ball, getting to play, getting to be in meetings, it helps a lot,” he said.

Utah’s situation at safety looks quite formidable, not only because of Bishop’s breakout final month of 2021, but because Hubert, for the first time in a long time, is healthy.

Hubert suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2019 Pac-12 championship against Oregon, but rehabbed his way back to play four of five games during the COVID-impacted 2020 season.

On the first play of the spring game last April, Hubert suffered a freak knee injury with the expectation being he would be lost for the 2021 season. Hubert was healthy enough to see action in the Rose Bowl, but he is now at full health, with no limitations.

“I love being out there,” Hubert said. “I’m a competitor, I love being out on the field, so it feels great being back there. To not be there and not be alongside my brothers on the field was difficult because I spent so much time with them in the facility lifting weights and being around practice, but not necessarily on the field.

“It was really difficult to just watch what was going on out there and standby.”

Beyond Bishop and Hubert back there, Kamo’i Latu impressed last season as a second-year freshman, but was hampered earlier this spring by a leg injury. Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham indicated last season that the leg injury was not serious, and that Latu would be back before spring ball was over.

The x-factor for Utah at safety right now is Clayton Isbell, a two-time FCS All-American at Illinois State who announced his commitment to the Utes out of the NCAA Transfer Portal on March 27. Isbell is slated to arrive on campus this summer.

There is a case to be made that Bishop, Hubert, Latu and Isbell will make up the safety two-deep in some order, but Whittingham referenced Bryson Reeves and Darrien Stewart as also being in the mix.