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This Utah playmaker’s emergence has been years in the making. Here’s how come

In the last two games, Devaughn Vele, a redshirt freshman wide receiver and former walk-on, has caught seven passes for 141 yards after making just two receptions for 33 yards in the previous four games

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele, left, makes a touchdown catch past USC cornerback Chris Steele during game Oct. 9, 2021.
Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele, left, makes a touchdown catch past USC cornerback Chris Steele during game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. Vele has emerged as a playermaker for the Utes this season.
Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press

It was a play that, one could argue, altered Utah’s season.

Late in the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a place where the Utes had never won, they were clinging to a 14-10 lead when quarterback Cam Rising’s surprising 37-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass to Devaughn Vele with 10 seconds remaining in the second quarter lifted them a 21-10 halftime advantage.

Adding to the lore of that sequence, the original play call was a run — not a trick play (more on that later).

Utah went on to dominate the Trojans 42-26 and it rallied in the second half to pound Arizona State 35-21 last Saturday.

In those two games, Vele, a redshirt freshman wide receiver and former walk-on, caught seven passes for 141 yards after making just two receptions for 33 yards in the previous four games combined.

“The emergence of Devaughn Vele has been a big positive for us,” said coach Kyle Whittingham.

It was fitting that Rising and Vele teamed up for that memorable flea-flicker — it was years in the making — and that the Utes’ reemergence after a 1-2 start coincided with Vele’s emergence.

Utah (4-2, 3-0) is now in first place in the Pac-12 South as it prepares for game at Oregon State on Saturday (5:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network).

Two years ago, Rising was the scout team quarterback and Vele was one of his receivers. That’s where it all began. That’s where they started to develop a rapport — against one of the program’s toughest defenses, against a bunch of guys that are now playing in the NFL.

“He and I have kind of been doing this for a long time,” Rising said. “Ever since we were on the scout team we’ve had that chemistry together. We’ve been throwing so much since that time. It’s coming to light now.”

Vele also attributes his strong connection with Rising to their time on the scout team.

“Definitely, 100%,” said the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder. “I always tell Cam that I know we have great chemistry because of the 2019 scout team. We had an opportunity to go up against the best DBs every single day — Jaylon Johnson, Javelin Guidry, Terrell Burgess, Julian Blackmon — made him better and it made me better. We saw both our strengths and weaknesses as a quarterback and receiver duo and that has translated to what we’re doing now. We know how we can play and play off each other.”

Even now, Vele and Rising continue developing their relationship. They sit next to each other in the locker room “so we’ll always talk to each other after practice about what we see on the practice field and what we see on film, little kinks we can fix here and there and how we can utilize our skill sets better to make big plays.”

And the duo is certainly making big plays on a regular basis these days.

Take Vele’s crazy, juggling, one-handed catch on Utah’s final scoring drive in the fourth quarter against Arizona State. He finished the night with three receptions for 57 yards.

Utah Utes wide receiver Devaughn Vele (17) makes a catch over Arizona State Sun Devils defensive back Timarcus Davis (7) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
Utah Utes wide receiver Devaughn Vele makes a catch over Arizona State’s Timarcus Davis in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Whittingham has been waiting for a while for Vele to emerge like this.

“He has practiced exceptionally well and made plays in practice. It was great to see that translate in a game,” he said last week. “We targeted him a few more times than we have been and he responded and made the plays. That’s who we believe he can be week in and week out. Hopefully, that’s what will happen.”

Wide receiver Britain Covey hyped up Vele last spring and summer and he’s happy to see Vele show what he can do.

“It’s just about finally seeing everything come to fruition. It’s equally as frustrating for us as it is for anyone that hears that this player is doing well on fall camp and this team could be really good,” Covey said. “Then to have it not show itself in the first couple of games is frustrating.

“So finally, when it comes to fruition, it’s the idea of, OK, this wasn’t just a fluke. For example, Devaughn Vele, he wasn’t just showing out in spring ball. He can do this. I think that’s what it feels like for the guys. Seeing it in person, having it happen under the lights, just confirms everything that we thought. That gets you going.”

What’s been the difference for Vele these past couple of weeks?

“Understanding my role on this team. I know I didn’t get as much playing time at the beginning of the season. But that was fine with me. I’m not the kind of guy to complain,” he said. “Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m going to do. The opportunity I have to contribute a little bit more on the field, I’m grateful for that because I can be that reliable factor for the team to get those wins.

“I’m appreciative of the coaches trusting in me. I know it’s a long time coming but I’ve put in the work and the time and the effort to be that reliable factor. I’m grateful I have the opportunity to show that to everybody.”

Everybody knows by now that the flea-flicker at USC was the wrong play call originally. Rising said he thought he heard the play call as “44.” But he just heard the “4,” which was the flea-flicker.

“We just went with it,” Rising said.

What did Vele think when Rising called that flea-flicker?

“I thought it was a bold move when I first heard it because usually we’re conservative with how we play things at the end of the first half,” he said. “When he called it, I was like, ‘That’s a bold move. But I like it.’ I’m grateful to be on the receiving end of that play. It worked out.”

It’s certainly worked out for the Utes. Vele’s emergence, and contributions to the offense, came at about the right time.