“It was amazing. I loved it. I’m Samoan myself so it was basically like going back home,” said Vele, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound redshirt freshman from San Diego. “I got to learn the language, the culture. It was two years that I wouldn’t give back.”
But when it comes to football, it was a challenge getting back into shape after his mission, though eventually he was able to earn a scholarship.
“It was hard at first. The mission legs were coming in. One thing I love about this program is, they really focus and emphasize player development,” Vele said. “A lot of five-stars go to places like Alabama. Here, they really work on developing their players. They can turn two-stars and three-stars into NFL players.
“I’m always appreciative of that. Over the years, it’s my third year here, I can see that they’ve helped me improve into the player I wanted to become.”
Last season, Vele caught two passes for 12 yards in five games. The Utes are expecting much more from him this year. He’s listed as Theo Howard’s backup as the “X” receiver on the depth chart that was released Thursday.
“He’s a guy that has a great skill set and he has great size,” coach Kyle Whittingham said of Vele. “He’ll be in the mix. We have seven or eight receivers in the mix.”
Now it’s time for Vele to take the next step and produce in games.
“It’s definitely a grind. The theme of that is trusting the process. Sometimes, you don’t have a good day. You can’t let that take away from your goals you can achieve,” Vele said. “I try not to get too down on myself. It’s a process. If you keep working hard, everything’s going to pay off eventually. I’m reaping those rewards right now. I’m not stopping here. There’s a lot more I want to achieve, especially helping this team win a Pac-12 championship.”
One of Vele’s biggest supporters is Britain Covey, who has been hyping up Vele.
“The name that a lot of people have heard about, and I never like to hype someone up because it creates unrealistic expectations, but Devaughn Vele is a great player. He’s crazy athletic,” Covey said. “We were in the gym the other day and he was throwing down through-the-legs windmill dunks. ... He’s very athletic but he’s coupled that with work ethic. He started out as a walk-on and instantly earned a scholarship. I’m excited for him.”
Told about the nice words that Covey was saying about him, Vele was appreciative.
“I love that man. Brit’s one of the most selfless people I’ve ever met. He always cares about others. He’s always looking out for everybody,” Vele said. “He doesn’t let the hype get to his head. He always helps the underdog. When I came in as a walk-on, he was always critiquing me and helping me. Now he’s hyping me up. I don’t like to boast about myself but at least I have someone do it for me.”
What is it going to take for Vele to break through?
“I talk about this with Devaughn all the time. I’ve taken a mentor role with him. He’s a little bit older, like me, he also served a mission. Going into a game is really hard when you haven’t performed at a certain level in a game and you go into a Pac-12 atmosphere, it really is a challenge,” Covey said. “There’s a mental toughness side that people don’t focus on enough. When you’re just focusing on footwork and drills. You have to carry it over.
“I feel like I had to have that my whole life, being small, being under-recruited. I’m trying to help Vele develop that because when he goes out there, he needs to have no doubt that he’s an All-Pac-12 receiver. He recognizes that part.”
For Vele, the most important thing isn’t individual accomplishments but rather team goals. He likes the talent in the receivers room.
“We’ve got a lot of depth this year,” he said. “This fall camp is about finding where every player can contribute because we definitely have a team that can make it to the championship.”