Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele started his career as a walk-on in 2019.

Vele eventually earned a scholarship. Last year he enjoyed a breakout season, catching 23 passes for 389 yards and a touchdown, averaging a team-high 16.89 yards per catch. Vele had two receptions for 33 yards against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

For the 6-foot-5, 204-pound sophomore from San Diego, his emergence in 2021 certainly strengthened his confidence. 

“It definitely sprung me forward in my confidence in understanding that I can be a role player in this offense. Being a walk-on, you have that mentality that you’re always an underdog. You never really know if you’ll ever get your chance,” Vele said. “It’s always about making your reps count instead of counting your reps.

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“Last season definitely helped me a lot in gaining that confidence. Everybody always heard about the great things I did in practice and fall camp and spring ball. But they never saw it on the field (in games). Being able to do it when the lights are on, it helped me understand that it’s not just practice, I can do it in the games as well.”

Now, Vele is looking to take another big leap forward as Utah’s top wideout. 

Wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis has seen Vele’s confidence grow. 

“Being a walk-on, you have that mentality that you’re always an underdog. You never really know if you’ll ever get your chance. It’s always about making your reps count instead of counting your reps. — Utah receiver Devaughn Vele

“He’s very confident. He’s seen himself make some plays. And he’s comfortable. I’m not moving him around as much. It’s so easy for guys like him — he knows all three receiver spots,” he said. “I put him at ‘X’ and let him get comfortable. It’s been more consistent. He can be that player for us. He’s special. He’s a 6-5 guy with crazy athleticism and his catch radius is unbelievable. He can do what we need him to do and he changes the offense.”

Vele was involved in a key play last season in Utah’s victory at USC. He caught a flea-flicker at the end of the first half that helped propel the Utes to an eventual Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl appearance.

“That game in general, not just the flea-flicker, it was a statement for our team and understanding how we wanted to commemorate Aaron Lowe and Ty Jordan,” Vele said. “That was a game where we came together as a brotherhood and really started putting our heads down and grinding for each other and not worrying about what the outside world was saying.

“I remember at that time, a lot of people wrote us off. They thought the season was over with and they were already looking to the next season. But we understood that it’s about us and we don’t need to worry about the outside noise. That’s when we buckled down and made sure we did what we needed to do.”

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele looks at the sidelines during game against Arizona State Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. For former walk-on is a battle to be the Utes No. 1 wide receiver as spring camp winds down in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Utah’s No. 1 receiver last season, Britain Covey, has moved on and is eyeing the NFL draft. That has left a void for Vele and Solomon Enis, as well as others, to try to replace.

It isn’t easy. 

“Covey’s definitely one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Filling that man’s shoes in the meeting room is not the same. We try to crack jokes and nobody’s laughing,” Vele said. “I guess that’s just something Covey could do. He was ‘Receiver 1’ and now that spot’s vacant.

“I’m going to push him and he can push me. Vele’s my brother and I love him to death. He’s been making strides. He deserves everything coming his way.” — Utah receiver Solomon Enis on Devaughn Vele

“We have a competitive nature. We’re not settling. We’re brothers and buddies in the meeting room but once we hit the field, it’s all about competing. Solo and I both understand that. We are trying to show our talents and showcase what we can do for the offense. We can be just as big of contributors as the rest of the offense.”

Vele said he and Enis are pushing each other to be better. 

“Football’s a tough sport. There are going to be days when you’re feeling down and your brother needs to pick you up,” he said. “We try to bring that juice. We love this sport and we’re trying to compete and make each other better.”

Enis has enjoyed watching Vele’s progression. 

“When he first came in as a walk-on, he was making plays and you’re like, ‘Who’s this kid?’ I didn’t know him at the time. Just every year, it feels like he’s getting better,” he said. “I swear I’ve never met anyone that works as hard as him. Even during winter conditioning, he was doing two or three workouts a day. I was trying to keep up with him.

“That’s the competition part. I support him in whatever he does. But I’m trying to keep up. I’m going to push him and he can push me. Vele’s my brother and I love him to death. He’s been making strides. He deserves everything coming his way.”