USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch hadn’t seen it on video prior to the Trojans’ game against Utah.

Perhaps he wasn’t watching Utah’s previous game closely enough.

On Utah’s third play of the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — set up by two Ja’Quinden Jackson rushes — quarterback Bryson Barnes threw it to wide-open safety Sione Vaki, who was playing offense, for a 53-yard touchdown pass that put the Utes on the board first.

Vaki lined up alongside Barnes in the backfield, then ran a wheel route. He was covered by USC’s Braylan Shelby, an edge rusher, who looked caught off guard by the play. Vaki took off and Shelby reacted too late — one thing you can’t do against someone with Vaki’s quickness. By the time Vaki raced past the line of scrimmage on his route, it was over — he was two steps ahead of Shelby, and Barnes dropped the pass right in Vaki’s hands for an electric first score.

“Personnel-based defense, based on the personnel they had. Third play of the game, we were trying to be aggressive. ... A play that hadn’t shown up on video, we’re playing the percentages,” Grinch said.

Apparently a cut from Utah’s previous game against Cal, specifically Utah’s first drive, didn’t make USC’s film room.

In Utah’s 34-14 win over Cal, Vaki ran pretty much the exact same route as he did against USC, just flipped to the other side of the field. It worked — Vaki was again multiple steps ahead of his defender — but Barnes and Vaki couldn’t connect and the pass fell incomplete.

The duo didn’t have that problem a week later in Los Angeles.

Vaki did it all in Utah’s 34-32 win over USC in the Coliseum. He played safety (two tackles while playing excellent coverage — he was the second-highest graded player in coverage for Utah vs. USC, per Pro Football Focus), running back (nine carries for 68 yards) and receiver (game-high 149 yards and two touchdowns on five catches).

How did Utah, and Vaki, get to this point, where a sophomore safety had more receiving yards than any of USC’s vaunted pass-catchers, who were being thrown the ball by Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams?

To get to the bottom of this question, we have to rewind six years to Brentwood, California.

‘Everything rode on Sione’

Ahead of his junior season of high school in 2017, Vaki transferred 14 minutes south from Antioch High in Antioch, California, to Liberty High in Brentwood. Vaki’s arrival at Liberty coincided with the hiring of Ryan Partridge, who previously coached at Livermore High in Livermore prior to the move.

Vaki played on Antioch’s varsity team as a sophomore, and pretty early on after meeting him at Liberty, Partridge saw that Vaki was going to be exceptional.

Originally, Partridge planned to use Vaki as an “H-back” type player, but after seeing him run, that didn’t last very long.

“We just needed him to run around one time. And we’re like, ‘What are we doing?’ And so we moved him to the slot, that way we had the ability to hand him jet sweeps and stuff and obviously throw him the ball,” Partridge told the Deseret News.

During his junior season, Vaki had 809 receiving yards, plus 358 rushing yards, all while playing on defense, where he had 45 tackles and an interception at safety.

He caught balls from quarterback Jay Butterfield — who would later commit to Oregon, appearing in a couple games over three seasons with the Ducks before transferring to San Jose State.

Liberty went 8-2 in the 2017 regular season, then cruised through the state playoffs, dispatching Heritage and San Leandro before beating Freedom 37-0 to claim the North Coast Section Division I championship for the first time in school history. Vaki had two receiving touchdowns in the title win.

That was just a harbinger of what Vaki would do next season. In his senior year, Vaki took his game to the next level. He didn’t run the ball much, focusing his efforts on receiving, while also increasing his skills at safety on the defensive end.

“In his senior year, he exploded,” Partridge said.

Vaki finished the season with 1,394 receiving yards (averaging nearly 100 yards per game), 20 receiving touchdowns, 97 tackles, four interceptions (one pick-six), two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Oh, and he also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

“He was our leader of the whole team. Fantastic on defense and unbelievable on offense,” Partridge said.

Led by Vaki, Liberty won its first CIF state championship in its long history — the school opened in 1902 — beating Sierra Canyon 19-17 to win the CIF Division 1-A state football title. Vaki had a big tackle late in the fourth quarter on fourth down to help seal the game for the Lions, finishing the championship game with 11 tackles.

The dream season had been realized.

“We had a lot of really good players. We had a quarterback, Jay Butterfield, he’s at San Jose State now. He went to Oregon. We had a really good offensive line led by Payton Zdroik (who also played two ways), who’s one of the best D-linemen in the country at Air Force now,” Partridge said.

“But I mean everything rode on Sione and getting him the ball. We had a really good running back, too (Tyerell Sturges-Cofer) that played some Division II ball. But I mean it was obvious. Sione was our guy who accounted for 1,400 yards of offense and 20-something touchdowns. Every game, how are we going to get Sione the ball?”

Utah’s Sione Vaki (28) runs from the wildcat formation against Cal in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

After the state championship season, he was awarded Bay Valley Athletic League MVP and the Bay Area News Group offensive player of year.

Naturally, Vaki’s play during his senior year attracted attention from colleges.

Rated a three-star athlete, he had offers from USC, Tennessee, Oklahoma State, BYU, Washington State and Utah. Mike Leach wanted him as a slot receiver in his Air Raid offense, according to Partridge, but the Utes won out.

Utah defensive coordinator and safeties coach Morgan Scalley and defensive ends coach Lewis Powell, who recruited the area, traveled to see Vaki play in person and saw the offensive potential, but decided to recruit him as a safety.

“They sold him on the defensive thing. I don’t think in their recruiting they ever really mentioned offense, but obviously they saw live and in person and I mean, he brought us to the state championship and he was just absolutely dominant,” Partridge said.

‘Better person than he is a player’

Vaki is the youngest of 11 kids, the son of father Piuleini Vaki and mother Oto’ota Vaki, who died in 2016. The entire extended Vaki family took over a portion of Liberty’s stadium when Sione was playing.

“You knew the Vakis were in the crowd at games. They had a whole corner of the stands with Sione’s family and it was just a really cool thing to see,” Partridge said. “He had such a great support system. His mother had recently passed when he came over to us and his dad was such a hardworking man and a great man.”

Family and faith is important to Vaki, who told Bill Riley on the coaches show following Utah’s win vs. Cal that even though he was feeling sore from playing two ways, he still got up, went to church and watched the Primary program.

“I’m not going to lie, I was feeling pretty sore but still got up. I had to go to church and watch the kids’ Sunday program so I had to be there to support the nieces and nephews,” Vaki said.

Partridge called Vaki “an absolute unbelievable human being dedicated to his family and his friends.”

“He is the hardest working player that I’ve ever coached. He is the best human. I mean, this is cliche to say, but he’s a better person than he is a player, and that’s hard to do,” Partridge said.

On Feb. 6, 2019, Vaki committed to Utah before serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As fate would have it, Vaki served part of his mission in West Valley City.

A return to playing both ways, this time in college

Back from his mission, Vaki hit the ground running in 2022. He played in all 14 games, starting five, playing all over the defense, but mostly at nickel back. He finished his freshman season with 41 tackles, with 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and three pass breakups.

Back in his high school position at safety this season, he formed one of the Pac-12 conference’s best safety duos with Cole Bishop. The two were performing well in Utah’s stingy defense, and Vaki had 6.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.

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But heading into the Cal game, Utah’s running back depth was running thin. Jackson was still working his way back to 100% from an ankle injury, still playing but not his normal self, Micah Bernard and Chris Curry were out for the season, Charlie Vincent was out, and freshmen Dijon Stanley and John Randle Jr. weren’t ready for prime time yet.

Utah knew what an offensive threat he was in high school, and what an athlete he is, so the Utes turned to Vaki for help at running back.

“Long before he started doing what you guys are just starting to see, I watched him as a high school player play his high school championship and I knew that he possessed those qualities and skills,” Utah cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah said.

Vaki quickly rewarded his coaches for the trust placed in him, rushing for 158 yards and two scores.

“I would say my first score on offense, I would say that was pretty crazy. I never thought I’d score a touchdown in college football, but hey, it was fun,” Vaki said.

He injected life into Utah’s offense and helped take some of the load off Jackson, who also had his best game of the year.

“I think he’s a great counter punch. JJ’s such a powerful runner, very good inside runner, but the decisiveness and explosiveness of Sione was on display on Saturday,” offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said after the Cal game.

After the win over Cal, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Ludwig both indicated that Vaki’s two-way role would continue.

“It’s a big trust issue. Thankful for the coaches in high school to believe in me, thankful for the coaches in college to believe in me to do the same thing,” Vaki said.

Which leads us back to the USC game. A huge number of starters and key contributors were out — quarterback Cam Rising, tight ends Brant Kuithe and Thomas Yassmin (who was starting in place of Kuithe), wide receiver Mycah Pittman, defensive end Logan Fano and Bernard. Then linebacker Lander Barton suffered a season-ending injury during the contest.

Though USC had been outclassed at Notre Dame the week before, the Trojans were still expected to take care of business at home.

Vaki’s role would expand to receiver at the Coliseum, along with running back and safety. The wheel route touchdown was phenomenal, but the highlight of the night for the do-it-all player came in the third quarter.

Barnes dumped the ball off to Vaki in space, and he made a beautiful cut move, causing USC linebacker Tackett Curtis to stumble. Then it was off to the races, with Vaki evading three defenders for the touchdown that put Utah up 28-14.

”We saw some of the moves he makes. He is so quick and accelerates so fast. He changes direction on a dime,” Whittingham said.

Vaki played a monumental role in one of Utah’s most memorable victories, a game it ended up winning on a Cole Becker field goal as time expired.

‘I try to stay away from all the hype’

At this point, Vaki may be so valuable on offense that Utah may have to play him less on the defensive side of the ball.

“He’s just such an athlete and as I mentioned before, he was the Northern California Player of the Year in some way, shape or form as a slot receiver, so it’s not new to him. You’re gonna see, every week, we may have to start resting him more defensively because he’s so valuable on offense,” Whittingham said.

Utes on the air

No. 13 Utah 6-1)
vs. No. 8 Oregon (6-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: Fox
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

When asked whether he prefers offense or defense if he had to make the choice, Vaki simply responded that he would do whatever helps the team.

As the media waited for Vaki to come over for interviews after Tuesday’s practice, a crowd of Little League football players that had been invited to interact with the team spotted him.

“Vaki! Vaki! No. 28! Can you sign my football?”

He’s one of the most-wanted autographs for this gaggle of kids, and he happily obliges each of them.

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Vaki is soft-spoken in interviews, shying away from taking credit, instead praising the coaches and game plan.

“No, not really,” he says when asked if he pays attention to the national acclaim for his two-way play. “I try to stay away from all the hype and things like that and just keep my head down, keep working.”

If he keeps playing like this, the spotlight is only going to grow brighter.

“I can’t believe he doesn’t have Heisman odds,” Partridge said.

Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) celebrates his sack on UCLA in Salt Lake City on Sept. 23, 2023. Utah won 14-7.
Utah Utes safety Sione Vaki (28) celebrates his sack on UCLA in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. Utah won 14-7. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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