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Utah’s free safeties providing leadership, experience to secondary

There are only two upperclassmen in the group — free safeties Vonte Davis, a senior, who has played in 33 career games and R.J. Hubert, a junior, who has 24 games under his belt

Utah safety R.J. Hubert lines up during 2021 spring drills at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. A junior, Hubert has 24 games under his belt.
University of Utah Athletics

On Utah’s two-deep chart this spring, the defensive secondary features five freshmen and three sophomores.

There are only two upperclassmen in the group — free safeties Vonte Davis, a senior, who has played in 33 games, and R.J. Hubert, a junior, who has 24 games under his belt.

Davis and Hubert are providing leadership and experience to the secondary this spring.

During the truncated, pandemic-altered 2020 season, Davis started all five games at free safety. He recorded 16 tackles, including one tackle for loss and one sack and tied for the team-high in interceptions (two) with four passes defended (two pass breakups) and a forced fumble.

How is Davis working toward having an even better 2021 campaign?

“This offseason, coming harder than I ever have. Just I put my mind to it,” he said. “The coaches are starting to trust me. I’m just trying to set the example for the freshmen and lead the way.”

Last fall, coach Kyle Whittingham praised Davis’ play.

“He’s one of the most improved players on the team. It’s been a big deal for us on defense for him to play at the level that he has. He is somewhat of an unknown commodity and unknown entity,” he said. “He didn’t get a lot of playing time in the past few years that he’s been here because of the guys that have been in front of him. But he’s done a great job of working in the offseason and adding weight to his frame.

Utah Utes safety Vonte Davis (19) makes an interception in front of Oregon State Beavers wide receiver Kolby Taylor (5) as Utah and Oregon State play a college football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.
Utah Utes safety Vonte Davis (19) makes an interception in front of Oregon State wide receiver Kolby Taylor (5) at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“He’s done a great job of being a student of the game and studying tape. His play has been a big bonus for us because we were a little bit in the dark as far as how he was going to react when he was going to be the guy. I couldn’t be more pleased with what he’s done.”

Though battling through an injury last season, Hubert appeared in four games, with playing time on defense against Colorado and Washington State. He started three games in 2019.

“R.J. was very unselfish in what he gave us last year. He was not 100%. He was not right with his knee,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley. “He was good enough to give us some valuable reps when needed. He also played on some special teams but didn’t feel right.

“We rehabbed him all throughout the season last year and this time off has been huge for him to get that knee more stable and get more strength in the legs. ... We’re excited to have him back and his leadership. He’s able to bring the younger guys a lot. He’s an example of what selfless football could do for a team.”

Utah is replacing last year’s starter at strong safety, freshman Nate Ritchie, who is serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The spring depth chart lists freshman Kamo’i Latu and freshman Cole Bishop at strong safety.

“They’ve done great in spring ball,” Davis said of the young players. “They came in ready to work. We still have stuff to work on.”

Whittingham is building another strong defensive secondary despite its youth.

“The secondary is much further ahead than last year at this time, where we were getting a whole group of guys ready to play,” he said. “This year, guys have experience. The defense is looking good, flying around. It should be a good group when all is said and done.”