Utah is losing two of its best defensive players to the NFL draft

Safety Cole Bishop started 29 games over three seasons at Utah, while Sione Vaki became a breakout two-way player this season.

(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.

The already short-handed Utah football program got substantially more depleted Friday.

In the morning, three-year starter Cole Bishop announced he is leaving and declaring for the NFL draft. In the evening, fellow safety Sione Vaki made a similar announcement.

Bishop, a team captain, has been one of Utah’s anchors on defense since his freshman season. He made 29 starts over 35 games. In 2023, he had 60 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

“The University of Utah took me in with open arms and treated me like family from the first time I stepped foot on campus,” Bishop said. “The memories I built at Utah are everlasting.”

Bishop was a second-team All-American, according to College Football Network. He was also a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the country’s best defensive back.

Arguably Bishop’s best game this season came against Florida. He finished with 11 tackles. The defensive back was one of the Utes’ more reliable tacklers. In 2022, he led the team with 83.

Vaki, meanwhile, figured to have a busy season transitioning from last year’s slot corner job to a safety gig this season.

However, when the Utes’ offense struggled mightily this season on account of injuries and inconsistency at both quarterback and running back, the coaching staff made the unique decision to turn to Vaki — a high school slot receiver — and utilize him alternately as a wildcat quarterback and running back.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) tries to change direction as the Utah Utes host the Oregon Ducks, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.

Against Cal, he rushed 15 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-clinching 72-yarder. Then in Los Angeles vs. USC, he got 14 offensive touches accounting for 217 yards (nine rushes for 68 yards, five receptions for 149 yards) and two more TDs.

He wound up appearing on offense in seven games this season, and totaled 307 rushing yards and two TDs, plus 203 receiving yards and three scores.

Defensively, he accumulated 51 total tackles (including 8.5 for loss), two sacks, one interception, and three passes defended.

“This decision does not come lightly, but I believe it is the best path for me to pursue my dreams of playing professional football,” Vaki wrote in a social media post. “While I am excited about this next chapter, ‘A Utah Man Am I’ is what I’ll always be. This program will forever hold a special place in my heart.”

He was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, and a 2023 Pac-12 All-Conference honoree (Coaches First Team safety/all-purpose; AP Second Team safety).