During Utah’s spring practices, senior safety R.J. Hubert is enjoying a fresh start of sorts.

Hubert suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon in 2019. Then after a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign when he saw limited playing time, Hubert suffered another season-ending knee injury in the spring game a year ago.

Now, Hubert is back. And he’s healthy. 

“It feels great. I love being out there,” he said. “I’m a competitor. That’s who I am. I love to be on the field.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham is thrilled to see Hubert return. “What’s really encouraging is that R.J. Hubert is back,” he said.

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Whittingham added that if the season started tomorrow, Hubert and Cole Bishop would be the starting safeties. 

Hubert has traveled a long, difficult road to return to the Ute secondary. How was he able to do it?

“It’s understanding that there’s light at the other end of the tunnel. I went through some dark times. It was difficult. I had my wife there to support me and that was great,” he said. “She really helped bring my spirits up when times were dark. The big thing was realizing that at the tail end of this, I’m going to be playing again. I have to act every day like I’m going to play again. I can’t get lazy and not do my rehab. I can’t not stretch and lift weights. I have to understand that if I’m going to be out on the field, and not get injured again, I have to take these things right now seriously.”

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley is confident that Hubert can return to the level of play he displayed before the injuries. Hubert played in 10 games in 2019 before his first knee injury. 

“He’s showing it right now. He’s out there running around, making plays. He’s a great leader,” Scalley said. “He’s what we hoped he would be after the surgery. Very, very athletic. He can play down in the box. He’s physical enough, he’s athletic enough to play in man coverage. He’s what we want.”

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For Hubert, being sidelined last year as the Utes won their first Pac-12 championship and earned their first Rose Bowl berth, was “very difficult,” he said.

“I am a competitor at heart. To not be there and to not be alongside my brothers on the field was difficult. I spent so much time with them in the facility, lifting weights and being around practice but not necessarily out on the field. It was difficult for me to just watch and stand by.”

Hubert provides key experience and leadership in the defensive secondary.

“He has a lot of experience. He’s a really good leader, helping everybody to learn the defense,” Bishop said. “There’s minimal drop-off between the ones and the twos and the three so everyone can produce.”

Hubert said his role hasn’t changed much. 

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“Last year, I was an older guy as well,” he said. “At the time, I was one of the older guys. It’s a pretty similar role. It’s getting everybody up to a level where we feel comfortable putting them on the field.”

After what he’s been through, Hubert has learned to take care of his body. 

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“As you come out of rehab and into field work and practice, it’s a different beast you have to deal with,” he said. “When I go out there, I work my muscles differently than I did in the training room. There’s an acclimation process. It’s not a great thing, but I’m used to coming back from injury at this point. And I understand that it’s difficult and uncomfortable but I’ve been able to do it.”

During his rehabilitation process, he talked to other players going through similar experiences. 

“The guys feed off each other’s energy,” Hubert said. “I supported others and they supported me. ACLs are an inevitable part of this game. It’s a contact sport and it’s an aggressive one. They’re going to happen. There’s going to be those people there and we try to feed off each other and give positive energy.“

And now, Hubert is back and healthy — and giving positive energy to Utah’s defense. 

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