The Britain Covey Story: How the Utes’ speedy, elusive receiver became the consummate ‘Utah man’
The Timpview High product is healthy and eager for the 2021 season, which includes a game near his home at LaVell Edwards Stadium
You’re too small, they said, year after year. Sure, you’re dominating at this level, but there’s no way you can replicate this at the next. And don’t even think about playing at a major program in college.
Covey heard them. But he never listened.
He believed in himself, and so did his family. But despite his successes on the football field, would anybody else?
As a junior at Timpview High, he finally received the answer. Covey was sitting in his a cappella class when his phone rang. He stepped outside the classroom to take the call. It was Utah’s then-defensive coordinator, Kalani Sitake, offering him a scholarship on behalf of coach Kyle Whittingham and the Utes football program.
“I was shocked,” Covey recalled. “It meant a lot to me that they would take the risk.”
It was his first scholarship offer — and it came from a Pac-12 program. It was a moment of vindication and validation for Covey, who stands just 5-foot-8. Someone believed in him, despite his size.
As a quarterback blessed with uncanny elusiveness and quickness, Covey wrecked opponents from flag football in elementary school through tackle football in high school. But few thought it would take him very far.
Well, they were wrong.
Now a junior at Utah, Covey has defied his doubters to become one of the premier punt returners and slot receivers in the country.
“He was a projection. He was a very good quarterback in high school. We knew that wasn’t going to be his position in college,” Whittingham said. “We had a belief in Brit that he could play Division I football as a wide receiver.
“Even more certain that he could be a terrific returner. It was a typical recruiting process although I didn’t think he had nearly as many people interested in him as they should have. They discounted him because of his size, a lot of schools. They shouldn’t have, because he’s a playmaker.”
The Britain Covey story is more than just about how he’s proving the naysayers wrong. It’s also about where he’s proving them wrong.
Blood is thicker than rivalry
Covey grew up in the shadow of LaVell Edwards Stadium — a couple of punt returns away from his family’s Provo home.
His dad, his brother and his uncle all played for BYU. Britain and his family walked to Edwards Stadium on game days. The Coveys have had season tickets, located in Portal PP, for decades.
Britain and his brother would wear shirts that said, “Friends don’t let friends go to the U of U.”
When he was a youngster, Covey was literally a poster boy for BYU fandom. Once, he was prominently featured in a BYU basketball promotional poster, rabidly cheering for the Cougars.
Growing up, he’d hang out at BYU practices with one of his best friends, Devin Kaufusi, whose dad, Steve, was a Cougar coach at the time. He got to know BYU players and they became friends. Generations of Coveys have attended, graduated from, and supported, BYU.
But things changed when Britain received that scholarship offer from Utah.
For the record, BYU did offer Covey a scholarship — but not until late in the process. Instead, Britain Covey became a “Utah man.”
“To have someone believe in you like that, you see the world differently,” said his father, Stephen, “including loyalties of who you’ve been cheering for your whole life.”
The Coveys will do anything to support a family member — even if he plays for the dreaded archrival. And that doesn’t mean the Coveys harbor ill will toward BYU. Just the opposite. Britain and his family still love BYU and they aren’t afraid to say so.
The family does admit that it took time getting used to wearing red. When Britain signed with Utah, his mom, Jeri, had to borrow a Utah shirt from a neighbor.
“It was a no-brainer for him to go to Utah, the way they told him they wanted him,” said Sean Covey, who, as a starting quarterback, led BYU to a 1987 win over Utah. “I remember the first time I went to a game and put on red, it was hard. But he’s at Utah, and I’m going to fully support him while he’s a Ute.
“Then I said, I’m going to get over this paradigm of you’ve got to love one and hate the other. I’m going to embrace them both. I like both schools. I’m going to cheer for both. I’m still a faithful Cougar. If they play each other, and Britain’s playing, I’m going to cheer for Utah. As soon as he’s gone, I’m back to BYU.”
The Coveys have embraced Utah football and have enjoyed getting to know the players, coaches, and fans. “It was easy to love the Utah football team because they love Brit,” said Britain’s older sister, McKinlee. “I love the fans at Utah. It feels like home.”
“I can honestly say that when they play head-to-head,” said Britain’s brother Stephen, “I’m 100% Utah.”
While the Covey family has been unwavering in its support, not everyone on the outside has felt that way. When news of Britain’s signing with Utah spread, someone once asked him in a snarky tone, “What would your grandfather think about you going to Utah?”
Without missing a beat, Britain replied, “Well, my grandpa graduated from the U.”
His grandfather, Stephen R. Covey, who earned degrees from Utah, BYU and Harvard, wrote the best-selling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” which has sold more than 40 million copies.
Like his grandfather, who died in 2012, Britain is a jokester and a prankster. His grandpa was known for wearing goofy shirts and wigs to parties. On his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Chile, Britain would playfully dump flour on companions while they were showering and name stray dogs after NBA players.
“They were like kindred spirits,” said Britain’s dad of his father and his son. “No matter what you’re doing, everything in life is more fun if you’re with Brit.”
Britain strives to exemplify the principles taught in “Seven Habits” and other books his grandfather wrote. He’s read his books five times and has spent considerable time pondering, and applying, the lessons.
“It’s cool that he left that legacy,” Britain said.
Grandfather Stephen R. Covey served missions in Britain, which partly explains Britain’s name.
Britain’s father, Stephen, always liked the name but when Britain was born, he and Jeri spelled it “Britton.” Weeks later, they changed the birth certificate spelling to Britain, to honor the family’s service and heritage in Great Britain.
The Whittinghams and the Coveys
For those wondering how Britain and his family could make the jump to Utah so seamlessly, there’s a longstanding bond between the Coveys and Whittinghams.
The Whittingham family moved to Provo when Kyle was in high school and Britain’s father and Kyle attended Provo High together. Kyle’s brother, Freddie, who is now Utah’s tight ends coach, and Britain’s uncle are close friends.
There was a strong relationship between the families for decades. They knew each other and played together. So when Whittingham offered Britain a scholarship, it was meaningful. It helped, too, that Britain’s high school coach was Cary Whittingham, Kyle’s brother. Kyle, Cary and Freddie all played at BYU.
“I think familiarity played a part on both sides. I have great admiration for Kyle and Cary and I trust the Whittingham family,” Britain said. “He never promised me that I would start, but he promised me that he wasn’t going to look at my size as a disadvantage.”
For Kyle Whittingham, recruiting Covey was natural.
“I’ve known the Covey family for literally 45 years,” Whittingham said. “I knew Brit’s grandfather very well and, of course, Brit’s dad. It’s been a relationship for many, many years.”
Britain’s got talent
When Britain was about 8 years old, he’d play a game with his older brother Christian and Christian’s friend. It was two-on-one football. Britain lined up at quarterback and took the bigger boys on.
Oftentimes, Britain would get crushed. But he also figured out ways to escape their grasp. Britain attributes his elusiveness, in part, to those games.
“Returning a punt is almost a skill that you’re born with,” he said. “There are certain skills you can learn and develop but being a return man is so instinctive. You have to be fearless.”
His oldest brother, Stephen, who starred at Timpview High as a quarterback, would rifle passes at Britain and Christian when they were younger. So from a young age, Britain learned how to catch the ball, which has served him well.
When Britain would play quarterback, he mimicked Stephen’s running style.
“He definitely has a special ability. Stephen was like that, too,” said Britain’s older brother, Christian. “Britty does have a special gift, that elusiveness. You can’t really quantify it. A college coach would think he’s too small. You can’t put it on paper like a 40-time or a bench press. It’s not measurable. He just makes plays.”
Britain watched brother Stephen win a state championship at Timpview as a quarterback and sign with BYU in 2005. However, injuries and other issues limited Stephen’s career.
One of the reasons Britain’s success has brought so much joy and pride to Stephen is because Britain is doing what he couldn’t.
“I feel like he’s doing a lot of stuff that I wish I could have done in college. Because of injuries and other issues, I never really had a chance to,” Stephen said. “When Brit’s playing, because it almost feels like he’s living out a dream that I didn’t fully get to experience, I’m super happy for him.”
Britain led Timpview High to back-to-back 4A state championships, winning 26 consecutive games at quarterback. He also starred on the basketball and track teams.
After signing at Utah, many wondered if he’d redshirt in 2015 before his mission. When Covey arrived on campus, he sat fourth on the depth chart at wide receiver. But in his Utes debut, in the season opener against Michigan, there he was, lining up against Wolverines star, and future NFL draft pick, Jabrill Peppers.
“Brit was doing really well against him,” his brother Stephen remembered. “At that point, I realized that he’s going to do this at every level.”
Later that season, Utah visited nationally ranked Oregon at raucous Autzen Stadium. He scored two touchdowns against the Ducks in an overwhelming 62-20 victory.
Britain’s sister, McKinlee, and his brother, Stephen were in attendance. “We were like, ‘This is such a Brit,’” Stephen said, laughing. “‘Of course Brit is going to do this.’”
At the end of the season, Covey was named a first-team Freshman All-American as a punt returner. He led the team with 43 receptions and 519 yards.
After that, he served a two-year mission in Chile. He returned in 2018 and led the team in receptions, yards and finished with 1,174 all-purpose yards.
Off the field, Covey has distinguished himself as well, excelling in the classroom, and being a loving brother, son, friend and teammate. When Covey was a teenager, his mom used to drop him off at Riverside Golf Course in Provo and he’d join a foursome. After playing a round, he would make friends out of strangers.
“He’s the most personable, kind-hearted person that I know. He becomes best friends with someone totally random,” said Britain’s sister, McKinlee, who has been his close confidant. “My grandfather always used to teach us that ‘life is not about the accumulation of things, but about contribution to other people’s lives.’ Brit has really been influenced and shaped by this idea. Even though he has accumulated so many things — awards, championships, recognition — what makes him great in my eyes is his desire to contribute to and bless other people’s lives.”
From a young age, Covey championed the underdog and gravitated toward kids who struggled or had special needs. One of his best friends is a boy with Down syndrome that he grew up with named William.
“He’s so genuine. He connects so well with everybody. He can make everyone feel accepted,” said Sean Covey. “He’s not judgmental or self-righteous in any way.”
Britain’s dad said Britain has always been about his team’s success, not personal glory.
“While he has his unique gifts,” he said, “he’s always been about the team.”
‘Maybe he shouldn’t play anymore’
Being a punt returner and slot receiver requires moxie and fearlessness, qualities that Covey possesses in large supply.
But over the years, he’s taken a beating. The worst experience for his family was in September 2018, against Washington at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He was pounded relentlessly by the Huskies. After each shot, he lay on the turf while his family agonized in the stands.
“That was the most difficult sporting moment of our lives,” Britain’s dad said. “He was getting lit up. It was miserable. It was so intense that it took all the joy out of the game and instilled fear and worry. My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe he shouldn’t play anymore.’”
But, of course, Covey would have none of that. He loves the competition, and the camaraderie he craves in football, too much to stop playing.
“Honestly, when I get hit hard, I’m on the ground and my first thought is pain,” he said. “But within a half a second, the next thought that comes into my mind is, I don’t want to give this player the satisfaction that he hurt me or hit me hard. I’m going to jump right up and get in his face, just to show him that ‘Yeah, you might have hit me hard but that didn’t hurt.’ When you’re my size in football, you kind of learn to live with a chip on your shoulder.”
On the opening kickoff of the second half in the Pac-12 championship game against that same Washington team in 2018, Covey suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in his right knee.
“He has a lot of heart, a lot of courage,” said his dad. “Returning kicks is like bull riding. It’s crazy.”
“But they usually can’t catch him,” Jeri said, “so that’s my only hope.”
Happy return to Edwards Stadium
Edwards Stadium is a special place for Britain and the entire extended Covey family. Though Britain had played at Utah as a freshman since 2015, it would be his first chance to take the field at Edwards Stadium in a game.
But it wasn’t the way he had ever imagined it as a kid — he would be playing against BYU, for the archrival.
Due to his knee, however, many wondered if he would be able to play at all. Though he wasn’t anywhere close to fully healthy, Covey donned a brace on his hobbled knee and trotted onto the field for a punt return in the first half.
Covey retreated, collected the ball on the bounce, picked up some key blocks, and weaved his way 40 yards before going out of bounds on the BYU sideline in the Utes’ 30-12 victory.
After the return, he triumphantly pointed to Portal PP, acknowledging his family.
“It was a little surreal to have it be at BYU’s stadium because we’d seen so many games there,” said Britain’s dad. “I’m amazed but not surprised by Brit. I’ve seen him do it all the time through the years at every level.”
For Covey, it was an unforgettable punt return.
“I was beyond a fanatic of BYU sports, all the way until I graduated from high school. I have a great affinity for that school and that stadium,” he said. “Just so many great memories there. That’s part of the reason why I did want to play. I knew that my knee wasn’t at even 60%. But I thought it might be the last opportunity I ever get. I’ve wanted to play in that stadium since I was a little kid.”
After that punt return against BYU, Covey saw limited action in a few more games but decided to shut it down and take a redshirt year because he hadn’t recovered in the way he had hoped.
Britain continued to work hard, looking forward to the 2020 season — then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He was hampered by various minor injuries and played in only a few games in the truncated five-game season, highlighted by an electrifying 64-yard punt return against Oregon State for a touchdown.
During the offseason, Covey’s been working with a personal trainer to help him prevent injuries to whatever extent he can.
“Nothing is worse when people call you ‘injury prone.’ You don’t want to be that person,” he said. “But there are some things that you can’t control. It was a mentally exhausting grind the last couple of years. I am stronger than I’ve ever been and I’m faster. I believe that I’m less susceptible to injuries because of what I’ve tried to do on my own.”
When he’s done playing at Utah, Covey wants to give it a shot in the NFL. Of course, there are those that will doubt him.
Covey is interested in coaching, too.
“I’m very curious to see where he ends up in his life. He’s one of those people that could do a lot of different things,” Jeri said. “He loves people and he brings out the best in people. He’s a natural-born leader.”
Having been in Utah’s program for six years, Covey makes self-deprecating jokes about his size and about his age. He just turned 24 and is now the elder statesman on the roster. His focus is on the upcoming season, when the Utes hope to win their first Pac-12 championship.
“I’m more excited for this season than any season in my career. Part of it is being married,” said Covey, who wed his wife, Leah, in early 2020. “Now I’m more grateful that I’m still here with all the things that have happened in my career the past four years. I’ve learned how grateful I need to be that I’m still playing. Not many people get that opportunity.”
His value to Utah’s program, on and off the field, can’t be overstated. Kyle Whittingham calls him one of the best return men in the country and the Utes will be relying on him again this fall.
“He’s got to be a big-play guy for us. He’s a guy that needs to touch the ball a dozen times a game between returns and receptions,” he said. “We need to get the ball in his hands. He’s dynamic. He’s got to be a big part of the offense, which we anticipate him being as long as he can continue to stay healthy.”
Tight end Brant Kuithe loves playing with Covey.
“He’s tough. He’s a great leader. Any time he gets the ball in his hands, he’s going to do something electric, no matter what,” he said. “He has four guys in front of him or six guys, he’s going to make them all miss or just run around them.”
The second game of the 2021 season will take place at Edwards Stadium on Sept. 11, for another game at BYU, the school he grew up cheering for, and against BYU’s head coach, Sitake, who called him that day years ago, offering him a scholarship.
The Utes will be looking to extend their winning streak against the Cougars to 10. On that day, Covey hopes to be fully healthy for the first time when playing BYU. And an army of Coveys will be sitting in Portal PP, clad in red, again. Yet his ties to BYU remain strong.
Britain’s parents, and older siblings, graduated from BYU. His younger sister, Arden, currently attends BYU. His wife is graduating from BYU this month.
But there’s no reason to be conflicted.
“For the rest of my life, I’m going to be a ‘U. Boy.’ I love this program,” Covey said. “Coach Whitt needs a statue at some point. All of my family are big Utah fans now, which is great. But we’ve kept our love for BYU as well.”
Britain, like his grandfather, will graduate from the University of Utah. After that, who knows?
“I’m convinced if he stays healthy and he gets a shot, I feel like he’s going to do the same type of stuff in the NFL. And I won’t be surprised when he does it,” said his brother, Stephen. “I’m convinced that if Brit could have a game at quarterback at the college level, he would dominate.”
There’s no telling what Covey can accomplish. There might be those who still doubt him. As usual, he hears them. But he isn’t listening.
“People have said constantly to him, ‘You’re too small,’” Jeri said. “He just proves them wrong — in a pleasant way.”