Clayton Isbell’s transfer leaves a hole in the Utes’ starting lineup. Who will fill it?

True sophomore Sione Vaki could be the answer after a productive freshman season.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) celebrates a stop on a kick return as the University of Utah hosts USC, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

The University of Utah football team emerged from the initial 45-day transfer window on Jan. 18 without having taken on much in the way of damaging losses.

Paul Maile was a 12-game starter at center in 2022, and will have to be replaced after transferring to BYU. Running back Micah Bernard hit the NCAA Transfer Portal two days after the Rose Bowl, but ultimately opted to return. Beyond those two, there wasn’t much to be up in arms about ahead of spring practice opening on March 21.

Then, March 15 arrived and Clayton Isbell announced he was headed for the portal. A two-time FCS All-American safety at Illinois State before arriving in Salt Lake City last summer, Isbell played in 14 games in 2022, mostly on special teams, but projected as the potential starter at free safety opposite strong safety Cole Bishop.

Even before the dust had fully settled on Isbell’s departure, it seemed clear that there was no obvious replacement at that spot. Isbell’s departure and what Utah ultimately does about it turned into an immediate spring storyline. If Cam Rising’s ACL rehab and who emerges as QB2 is the No. 1 topic of discussion, safety is certainly No. 2.

“I would say it was not expected,” Utes defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said last week. “He has the athleticism, and he’s got the ability, and I wish him nothing but the best. But yeah, we have to recruit and develop so that’s not an issue, right?”

Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham has echoed Scalley in that this is not thought to be a pressing issue. A lot of that has to do with the belief that there is enough depth in the room, enough veteran guys present who know what Whittingham and Scalley want that one guy leaving is not going to blow up plans.

After Utah conducted its fourth of 15 spring practices on Tuesday afternoon, Whittingham didn’t catch anyone off guard when he said that Bishop, twice an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection, and Sione Vaki were the two safeties currently running with the first-team defense. The widely-held assumption since Isbell left is that Vaki, a returned Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary who played in all 14 games last fall as a true freshman, is the most-capable option at free safety. That said, questions as to where Vaki fits best may linger as he is also Scalley’s most-capable option at the nickel, which is another hole needing to be addressed.

“I love Sione wherever Sione is on the field, and that’s a very true response,” cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said. “Sione can play safety. He can play nickel because if he plays nickel, you get somebody who is as strong and as violent as a linebacker, but is cat-quick. He can play receivers, he can fit in the run game. Sione’s versatility is what you love, and also, I really see him right now as a safety and just the level of versatility makes him so valuable that allows us to do so many things with him on the back end.”

Added Scalley: “The versatility of that kid, he’s a Swiss Army knife that you can use in multiple roles. He can blitz, he can cover, he’s very instinctive on the back end, and that’s the case with Cole and Nate (Ritchie) as well, and so it just gives you options in the different defensive packages that you put in based on matchups.”

What to do with Ritchie adds an interesting wrinkle. A returned LDS Church missionary after starting all five games at strong safety in 2020, the former Lone Peak High School standout has yet to practice, Whittingham indicating a couple of times recently that he is not quite physically ready after some lingering issues cropped up during winter conditioning.

Whittingham on Tuesday called Ritchie week-to-week, an indication that medical personnel are erring on the side of caution that his availability for spring at any point is in doubt. Despite Ritchie’s unavailability, Whittingham went as far as to say that Bishop, Vaki and Ritchie are his first three safeties, which means there is need to figure out the fourth and fifth safeties.

Jadon Pearson played in 13 games last season as a third-year sophomore, although mostly on special teams, while true freshman early enrollee Jonathan Hall and true sophomore Darrien Stewart are a pair of names that have come up multiple times between Whittingham and Scalley.

“We feel like the guys that we have in the program with Sione Vaki, Cole Bishop, Jayden Pearson, then you have Nate Ritchie coming back home off of his mission, Bleu Stewart, these guys that have been in the program, so that’s our job, to continue to develop the talent and have answers there,” Whittingham said

“We should be in good shape there, and if we feel like we’re not after spring, there’s always the portal to supplement what you’ve got.”

Added Scalley: “We’ve got the bodies, again, Cole Bishop has been a very good strong safety, and we think he could be a very good free safety. Sione Vaki’s the same, he’s played in that nickel spot, he has the athleticism to play multiple roles, so we do not feel there is a deficiency in terms of that spot.”