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Why a transfer from Washington and a rising vet are so crucial to the Utes’ secondary

There’s been plenty of competition at the two safety spots for the Utes heading into the season

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Washington safety Brandon McKinney in action during game against Arizona, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz.

Washington safety Brandon McKinney in action during game against Arizona, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, in Tucson, Ariz. McKinney has impressed Ute coaches since joining the program.

Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

While Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley has a lot of confidence in his secondary, he acknowledges that there’s still a lot he doesn’t know about how those young players will perform when the season kicks off. 

The Utes host Weber State on Sept. 2.

“We’re still young in the secondary, young in a lot of different ways. We’re young in the sense that we haven’t even played in front of a crowd with some of these guys,” said Scalley, who also coaches the safeties. “They’re not used to the ebb and flow of the good things that happen in a game and drawing off of a crowd; or getting booed by the opposing crowd or the opposing crowd going nuts if you give up a play. There’s a lot that they have yet to experience. That’s something you can’t really replicate or prepare them for until they experience it firsthand.”

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Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley looks on during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Scalley has confidence in his secondary but acknowledges it is a young group and has things to learn and experience.

University of Utah Athletics

At safety, the Utes lost starting strong safety Nate Ritchie, who has departed for a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and backup R.J. Hubert, who is out with an injury.

Returning are freshman Kamo’i Latu and senior Vonte Davis. 

Joining the group is Washington transfer Brandon McKinney and freshmen Cole Bishop and Darrien “Bleu” Stewart. 

“Brandon’s done a great job. He was coached up well at the University of Washington. You look at the strides both Cole Bishop and Kamo’i Latu have made,” Scalley said. “Vonte Davis is a seasoned vet back there. Darrien Stewart at the free safety spot is making good strides. We feel like we’ve got the depth at that position.”

McKinney has extensive experience, having played 44 games for the Huskies from 2017-20. He started in the Rose Bowl in 2018. McKinney has experience that Scalley can count on. 

“He knows how to prepare. He’s very mature about studying film and mature about coming in and letting the guys get a feel for him before trying to assert himself,” Scalley said. “He is a leader but he’s also had to take some time to gain the trust of the guys in the room. He’s done that. He’s a very smart, heady football player that can play both the free and the strong. ... He’s a guy that, athletically and mentally, can handle both. That’s huge for us.”

Entering last season, Davis had never started a game for Utah.

But as part of a young and inexperienced secondary, Davis started all five games and showed what he could do. 

In those five games, he recorded 16 tackles, including a tackle-for-loss and a sack. He also tied for the team-high in interceptions (two) to go along with a pair of pass breakups and a forced fumble. 

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Utah Utes safety Vonte Davis makes an interception in front of Oregon State receiver Kolby Taylor at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Davis appreciated the experience he was able to get in 2020. 

“What I gained from that was confidence, really,” he said. “I was kind of nervous in my capability. But once I got out there, I found out that it eased up for me. It felt amazing to do it at this level.  But I expected it to happen, to be honest.”

During the season, coach Kyle Whittingham singled out Davis for his stellar 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.

“For people that question our secondary, all I’ve got to say is, just wait and see,” he said. “It’s going to be a movie. I promise you.” — Vonte Davis

“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 so far.”

The Utes will be counting on Davis again this season. 

For Davis, it’s unusual to be one of the veterans in the secondary. 

“It feels a little weird, to be honest,” he said. “I’ve always been the young buck in the group. This is a new thing. Right now, the young guys are showing me that they’re willing to work. They’ve just got to fix a few things. With (coach) Scalley and me helping them, they can get there. There’s no limit to what we can do if we stay focused and work hard.”

What does Davis say to those that question the secondary due to its overall lack of experience? 

“For people that question our secondary, all I’ve got to say is, just wait and see,” he said. “It’s going to be a movie. I promise you.”