Going into spring practices, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham wanted to see consistent production from his wide receivers.
By the end of spring ball, Whittingham liked what he saw.
Devaughn Vele emerged as Utah’s top receiver, while others showed promising signs.
The Utes have proven tight ends in Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid but they need more firepower out of the wideouts.
“We need to generate more explosive plays in the perimeter. A lot of our explosive plays were generated on the interior with the tight end play,” said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “The ability to create the one-on-ones because the tight ends are going to draw attention on the inside. It’s taking advantage of the one-on-ones on the outside with dynamic playmakers. I think we have the size and speed to do that. We just need to put it all together.”
Vele’s size provides the Utes with a dangerous weapon.
“It’s a big advantage when he goes up for contested balls. He’s not only 6-5, but he has great body control,” Whittingham said. “He can outmaneuver people for the football because his athleticism is at such a high level as well.
“That’s a great combination and a great weapon as a wide receiver to have that size and that acrobatic ability. He’s got great hands. He hardly ever drops a ball. His challenge has been to stay on the field consistently and stay healthy. He was able to do that all spring so that’s a great start with that.”
Whittingham calls Vele and Solomon Enis the leaders of the wide receivers.
Quarterback Cam Rising has established great chemistry with Vele.
“He’ll be that backside receiver that can do whatever you need,” he said. “I’m just excited to get him the ball and watch him go.”
What does Rising attribute to Vele’s improvement?
“Mentality,” he said. “Just getting that dog out of him and making sure he knows that he’s the guy each and every play that has to go in and he knows that. That’s been the next step for him.”
“Devaughn has always had the talent,” Whittingham said. “It was just a matter of polishing his game and being able to stay healthy and stay on the field.”
Rising has been pleased with the progress of his receivers.
“They’re coming along,” he said. “They’re doing a great job making sure that they’re attacking the ball, being aggressive and really taking ownership of winning those one-on-ones. The past few weeks they’ve gotten so much better.”
One of the many players that impressed Whittingham during the annual spring game was redshirt freshman wide receiver Makai Cope.
The 6-foot-3, 199-pounder from Culver City, California, caught three passes for 42 yards, including a one-handed grab on a pass from Rising.
“He’s continuing to come along. He’s a guy that has a lot of upside,” Whittingham said of Cope. “He has a big body and he’s a physical receiver. He’s smooth and has very good hands. He’s made steady, continued progress since he set foot on campus. He should be ready to help us this fall.”
Enis has also taken steps forward during the spring.
“I’ve seen Solo play as well as I’ve ever seen him play. I was here with him when he was a freshman, including last year,” said wide receivers coach Chad Bumphis. “Right now, it’s like a light bulb switch has flipped. He understands that he’s running out of time here. He’s been able to make some plays. But I challenged him to bring the young guys with him.”
Enis said the goal moving forward, heading into next fall, is consistency. “We have a lot of playmakers. Now, it’s just being consistent. We have the guys in the room that can do it. It’s showing up every day and being a guy the team can lean on. There’s still a lot more work to be done.”
There’s no pressure on the receivers, Enis said.
“Pressure makes diamonds. Personally, I don’t really feel pressure. A lot of older guys coming back. I think we’ll rise to the occasion. We’re getting better every day. Pressure? Not really. We’re just going to do our jobs and be the best at it.”
“The biggest thing with J.D., like most of them, is consistency,” Bumphis said. “Between him and Money, some of the best things they bring is speed. You have to be fast on every play. Another thing that helped him is being assignment-sound.”
“Money Parks, Makai Cope — we’re giving them a lot of attention, a lot of work, because we need that depth,” Ludwig said. “Those are two talented young players. They’re still figuring some things out. But they have juice, they have ball skills.”
At the end of spring, Whittingham said that the program will add “three or four” receivers that will add to the depth of the wide receivers group.
Vele is happy about the work he and his teammates were able to get done during the spring.
“It’s definitely enjoyable. It’s great seeing where our team is at right now. That’s what I love about spring ball,” he said. “You can always do offseason work but you don’t know what you need to work on until you get on the field, when someone’s in your face. Once this offseason hits, I already know what I need to work on as we get ready for the season. Spring ball is definitely fun. It’s not easy.”
Overall, Enis is confident about how the offense will perform in 2022.
“All across the board, we have an elite tight group, you can’t deny that. We have a great running back corps. I think we all complement each other pretty well,” he said. “You can’t really find inconsistencies. Anyone on the outside can say what they want but we have a solid O-line. The tight end group is always going to be solid. The running back group is always going to be solid, especially the quarterback room with Cam leading it. We’re solid across the board.”