Utah football’s top wide receiver is ready to say goodbye to college

Vele is a fourth-year sophomore, but he is also 24-years old, having served an LDS mission right out of high school.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP) Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) reacts after catching a pass for a first down during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.

When the University of Utah released a list of 17 players to be honored as part of Senior Night festivities, wide receiver Devaughn Vele’s inclusion came as a surprise.

Quarterback Cam Rising and running back Tavion Thomas, while not seniors, had long been assumed to be leaving after this season, but there had been little, if any, chatter about Vele ending his college career this fall.

After all, as a fourth-year sophomore, he still has two years of eligibility and had just begun to fulfill his potential on the field. In 10 games this season, all of which were starts, Vele’s 44 catches for 546 yards and five touchdowns are all team-highs among wide receivers.

“That’s the plan right now,” Vele said Monday when asked if this would be his final season at Utah.

The thing with Vele, though, is that he is not your average fourth-year college student, a fact that is not lost on him.

“It’s not an eligibility issue, it’s more so my age,” he said. “With me going on a (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) mission, I am a little bit older than a lot of the other guys. They have me as a sophomore, but I’m 24 years old, so time is against me. I want a good shot at the NFL. I think this is the most opportune time to accomplish that.

“I don’t want to leave. It’s not something I want to do. I want to stay here as long as I can, but like I said, the clock is against me. If I was 20 years old, I’d be here for the next three years.”

When it comes to non-seniors being honored on Senior Night, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham’s stance is better safe than sorry: even if you’re just thinking about leaving, go ahead and be honored in case you do indeed leave. If you come back, so be it, you’ll be honored again when you actually do leave.

Vele said he does intend to leave the program after this season, but there is still a possibility he could return.

“I’ve been juggling that around, talking to my family and my wife about it all the time,” Vele said “It’s not set in stone, I’m trying to play the cards, see what I’m dealt. Obviously, if things point to me staying another year, I’ll stay another year, but I feel like it’s in my best interest to move on. We’ll see what’s in store for me.”

If Utah’s top wide receiver does leave, it will be another major loss to what has been an effective, often-electric offense over the last two seasons, especially at the skill positions.

Whittingham made clear Saturday night that this is Thomas’ last season of college football. When asked Saturday night if it was his last home game, Rising said, “Yes, I believe so,” before Whittingham echoed his All-Pac-12 quarterback’s sentiment.

Tight end Brant Kuithe, out for the year with a torn ACL, could gain one more season via medical redshirt, but that is considered unlikely. Utah’s other All-Pac-12 pass-catching tight end, Dalton Kincaid, is also a senior.

If this is the last ride, so to speak, Vele understands what is at stake as Utah prepares to face Oregon in what will be the Utes’ biggest game of the season.

After last season’s Rose Bowl run, a win would put Utah in a position to make a return to the Pac-12 championship game, which would put it in position for a return to Pasadena. Saturday at Autzen Stadium is one of those season-defining moments people are going to remember, regardless of whether it goes positively or negatively.

“This is going to be the make or break, whether we go to the championship game or not,” Vele said. “They suffered a tough loss against Washington, so we have the recipe on how to beat them with the film they put out. We just know we have to make sure we execute the game plan they give us. We’re going to be in a hostile environment. That’s the one thing I always hear about there, that it’s loud.

“Obviously, I’m not satisfied right now. We haven’t won a championship, we haven’t won anything of significance right now. Looking at it from my own point of view, I don’t want to look at it like that right now. The biggest game of our season is coming up this week, so thinking about that stuff is not at the forefront of my mind right now. I want to make sure I keep that Pac-12 championship at the front of my mind and play for my teammates.”