The TribUte newsletter: Devaughn Vele’s arrival comes at a time when Utah really needs it

Vele has 13 catches over Utah’s last two games as the Utes adjust to life without Brant Kuithe

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) stretches over the line for a touchdown, as Oregon State Beavers defensive back Alex Austin (5) tries to hold him back, in PAC 12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon State Beavers, at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

I can remember a small handful of times when Britain Covey went out of his way to hype up Devaughn Vele early in the latter’s career.

Once during a phone interview in the spring of 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic had shut sports down. Another one came during Pac-12 media day in 2021, Covey speaking in glowing terms of the then-third-year freshman.

The message both times was the same: Watch out for this kid. He has the tools, he just needs to find his confidence and make the most of opportunities when they come his way.

As far as the wide receiver position goes, part of the run-up to this season was that much was going to be expected of Vele after catching 23 passes for 389 yards and a touchdown.

Just as Covey tried to tell people several years ago, Vele appears to have arrived over the past two weeks at a time when the Utah offense is in need of recalibration with Brant Kuithe out for the season.

On the night Kuithe was lost for the season at Arizona State, Vele had six catches for 63 yards in a 34-13 win. He followed that against Oregon State with seven catches for 94 yards and a touchdown.

“Once you get a few touches, that adrenaline gets going and the only thing you want is to keep getting the ball,” Vele said earlier this week. “I’m grateful that I am getting my opportunities. Everybody’s going to be getting touches, we game-plan every week depending on the opponent. We just need to make sure that when we do get those opportunities, we’re making the most of them.”

With Kuithe out, new opportunities have arisen and Vele has taken advantage. Those 13 catches over the past two games have come on 17 targets. For the season, his 21 catches for 269 yards both lead the Utes, while his three touchdowns are tops among wide receivers.

“I’m just grateful I’m getting the opportunities and I’m trying to make the most out of it that I can,” Vele said. “There’s going to be plays left out on the field, but as a receiver, I just want to make sure I minimize that as much as I can.”

Other things on my mind

• We are just about at the midway point of the college football season, which means the various bowl projections produced weekly by the national outlets have some data behind them. One of them caught my attention this week.

Brett McMurphy of The Action Network had Utah in the Cotton Bowl. Under that scenario, the Utes finish 11-2, including a loss in the Pac-12 championship game against USC, which McMurphy had in the Rose Bowl. That means the Pac-12 was again shut out of the College Football Playoff.

Utah would have gotten to the New Year’s Six, but without winning its conference. Given this season’s Cotton Bowl is at-large vs. at-large, the Utes would assuredly face the highest-ranked Group of Five team, or even potentially BYU if it keeps winning.

How would Utah fans feel about this? No Pac-12 championship, but a trip to an NY6 game for the second straight season.

• The run game has to get figured out, whether it’s Tavion Thomas returning to bell-cow status after a couple of weeks of uncertainty, or something of a committee approach, because what went on last week is untenable over a long period of time. It’s one thing that Cam Rising was the leading rusher against Oregon State, but it’s quite another that Jaylen Dixon’s 22 yards on one carry were good enough for second-most. I say this with the understanding that Micah Bernard has been a little banged up recently. My point stands.

• Last week against Washington was big, but Saturday’s visit from Utah strikes me as UCLA’s biggest game of the Chip Kelly era, which dates back to 2018. Looking even further back, this is probably the program’s biggest game since 2014 or 2015 under Jim Mora. The 2015 Bruins laid a couple of eggs after getting to No. 7 in the AP Top 25, but the season before that, eighth-ranked, 4-0 UCLA dropped one at the Rose Bowl to unranked Utah, which finished 9-4.

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