Utah football’s best wide receiver is starting to gain momentum when the Utes need it most

Though the Utes had hoped to make him part of a more well-rounded group of wideouts, he’s assumed the role of top dog yet again, and has had his two best performances in the past two games.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) scores a touchdown as the Utah Utes host the Arizona State Sun Devils in NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

Every season, the Utah football team brings in some new wide receivers with the hope of jump-starting the passing game.

Coming out of spring ball, true freshman Mikey Matthews was considered a potential standout. Going into fall camp, transfers Mycah Pittman and Emery Simmons were the subject of considerable attention. And in the weeks leading up to the season, Money Parks was getting some buzz.

And yet, heading into the 10th game of the regular season, the Utes’ old standby, Devaughn Vele, once again appears to be the team’s best and most consistent option.

His numbers won’t wow you, as is wont to happen in a program whose unsettled quarterback situation has resulted in its offense reaching 200 yards passing in just one game this season, while amassing more yards rushing than passing on five occasions already.

But when the Utes do have some success moving the ball through the air, Vele is often the reason why — to the point that the head coach has conceded the team has not done a good enough job of getting its top wideout the ball.

“We need to make a conscious effort to make sure he’s involved in the game plan, because he makes big plays pretty much every time you throw him the ball,” said Kyle Whittingham.

Wide receivers coach Alvis Whitted said halfway through fall camp that he felt like the contingent of receivers around Vele was a “great supporting cast,” but the group has been very much up and down this season.

Parks caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Bryson Barnes on Utah’s first play from scrimmage, and is second on the team in receiving yards behind Vele, while the young Matthews is second in receptions and third in yardage. Converted tight end Munir McClain is always a threat to make a highlight-reel play (as evidenced by his climbing-the-ladder touchdown grab vs. Arizona State), but has all of six receptions this year. Meanwhile, Pittman had only three catches for 20 yards before incurring a season-ending injury, while Simmons has appeared in every game, but has totaled just one reception for two yards.

Vele, meanwhile, has overcome a slow start to the season (beset by the constant switching between Barnes and Nate Johnson at QB, plus an injury that kept him out of the win vs. Weber State) to assert himself in recent weeks. After having no more than four catches in any of his first six games, he’s grabbed seven receptions in each of the past two matchups, translating those into a season-high 80 yards against Oregon, while scoring his first two touchdowns of the year this past Saturday vs. the Sun Devils.

“Um, I mean, it wasn’t nothing special. It was just giving me the opportunity to make plays,” the understated Vele said after the ASU win. “We had one-on-one matchups that we gameplan against, and Bryson was just giving me opportunities to make plays, and I made the most of them. So I don’t think it was anything different, it was just waiting for the opportunities to come.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) gets a first down as the Utah Utes host the Arizona State Sun Devils in NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

As reticent as he apparently is to give himself some credit, everyone else on the Utes has zero trouble singing his praises.

Several people made mention of how his selfless attitude and straightforward translate into being a team-first guy.

“Devaughn, man, that’s my big brother, that’s my mentor. Just appreciate everything he’s taught me. He means a lot to our group,” said Matthews. “… He’s not a very vocal leader, he mostly leads by example in practice, but once you really get to know him, and you get that one-on-one conversation, that’s when you really get to pick his brain and he just helps us with everything.”

“Vele, he’s a good person. A good player is what you guys can see, [but] he’s always helping everyone,” added McClain. “I love to be around him, I like [having] him in the room.”

The head coach got in on the praise parade, too.

“Tremendous consistency, effort, practice habits. He’s a great teammate — I mean, he’s a team guy from the word go,” said Whittingham. “The weeks that he doesn’t get his touches, he never complains, never says anything, all he does is come out and work hard. So it’s been very satisfying to see him have his production go up these last two weeks. He’s one of the better receivers in the Pac-12, in my opinion.”

Of course, you’d expect that a guy now in his mid-20s after serving a two-year church mission and subsequently spending five seasons in the program would bring a level of maturity and know-how to the team.

He has, after all, seen a bit of everything, starting as a walk-on before earning a scholarship, navigating the abbreviated COVID-19 campaign of 2020,

But it’s not just experience and veteran savvy that he brings to the table. The 6-foot-5, 210-pounder has plenty of physical skill, too.

“He’s a big receiver that can run, and he separates — you saw what he did this weekend and last week,” said McClain. “He’s a threat on the field.”

“He’s got a big catch radius, and he can go up and get the 50-50 ball, and he’s a guy that really does a great job competing for the ball when the DB’s in position,” added Whittingham.

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) catches a pass against UCLA defensive lineman Grayson Murphy (12) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

For that matter, one of the Utes’ own DBs, starting corner JaTravis Broughton, has certainly had enough reps against Vele in practices to come away impressed with what he’s capable of.

“Man — quick, shifty right off the ball. With him, you’ve especially got to be patient because he used to be a basketball athlete, so he knows how to get to the edges and get to really [use] size [against] you,” said Broughton. “He’s a big receiver, too, so he’s gonna go up and go get the ball.”

Even if Vele wasn’t going to make a big deal about his first two touchdowns of the season — “It’s great to get in the end zone, but I’m just grateful we got the win,” he said — his teammates certainly were thrilled.

“It was great for Vele to get his share of the pie and kind of just let it rip out there,” said Barnes.

The wideout who called Vele his brother and mentor said those two touchdowns will ultimately mean much more than just staking Utah to an early lead against the Sun Devils.

“I’m so happy for him and how he finally was able to score this season — just so you can get film, because he’s gonna be in the NFL next year,” said Matthews. “I’m just really proud of him.”


But that’s for down the road.

For now, Vele’s focus is on Washington this Saturday. Then Arizona the next. And Colorado the one after that. If the Utes pull off a shocker and reach the Pac-12 Championship, then he’ll focus on that. Followed by whichever bowl game Utah gets invited to.

For now, he’s just focused on keeping his momentum going, trying to make life a little easier for Barnes, and hopefully getting another of those 200-plus-yard passing games on the board.

“I always tell him, ‘You put it out there, I’m gonna make sure I make the play.’ That’s what we have to do as receivers — give the quarterbacks confidence when they put that ball out there to trust that we’re gonna make the play,” Vele said. “That’s kind of the message I gave to him: ‘If you ever are in doubt or you need a big play, I’m always there.’ That’s kind of where I’m at right now. I’m just waiting for the opportunities to come and just making the most of them.”