With Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki returning, no wonder Utah coach Kyle Whittingham feels comfortable with the safeties spot this spring.

Bishop, a 2022 Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention, led the Utes in tackles with 83 last season, along with six tackles for loss. Bishop also had one interception, three pass breakups and 1.5 sacks. 

Vaki finished with 41 tackles, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble and three pass breakups. 

“The safeties are looking good, especially the first two — Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki,” Whittingham said. 

After returning home from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in late December, Nate Ritchie, who started at safety in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, has been dealing with an injury this spring. 

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“We’ll see what happens there. But we need to find out who the backups are,” Whittingham said. “We have those first three, counting Nate, though he’s not getting reps. We’ve got to find out who No. 4 and No. 5 are going to be.”

In mid-March, safety Clayton Isbell entered the transfer portal.

But defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley likes the depth and talent at that position. 

“Playing the free safety spots is so much about the ability to get sideline-to-sideline,” he said. “Cole and Sione have that. We have Nate Ritchie coming back from a mission. He’ll have the ability to do that … Vaki and Cole are as solid as can be. We’re excited with this group.”

Spring practices are to develop players and solidify the depth chart.  

“That’s what the spring is for. We feel that we have it in the safety room. We’re definitely going to miss Clayton and we wish him nothing but the best,” Scalley said. “We’ve seen that in this day and age of the transfer portal, that stuff is going to happen. How have you recruited? How have you developed? We feel like we’re in a good spot.”

Among the other safeties being evaluated are junior Jadon Pearson and sophomore Darrien “Bleu” Stewart. 

Bishop is enjoying spring ball. 

“It’s going good. A lot of base stuff that we’ve been doing,” he said. “We’ve been trying to get the new guys to learn the playbook and get the older guys that have experience back into shape. We’re just trying to get better every day. It’s nice to actually be playing football again — not just running and lifting but getting to play again.”

Last season, Whittingham was effusive in his praise for Bishop.

“He’s got everything you look for. He’s so athletic in coverage, a great blitzer and tackler. He’s the whole package. He’s got size. … You’re seeing one of the best safeties in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country.” — Kyle Whittingham on safety Cole Bishop

“He’s a complete football player. He can do it all. He’s in his second year so he’s a true sophomore. What he’s doing as a true sophomore is really amazing,” he said. “He’s an absolute phenom at safety. He’s got everything you look for. He’s so athletic in coverage, a great blitzer and tackler. He’s the whole package. He’s got size. … You’re seeing one of the best safeties in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the country.”

Bishop said the safeties as a group are getting better. 

“It’s good. Everyone has to keep improving. We’ve got a long way to go before the season but we’ve got a lot of guys that could play right now,” he said. “We look good. I’m happy with the new guys that are coming in making plays and the older guys that have more experience making plays. Once we master the playbook, all the new stuff we’re doing and all the base stuff, it will really help us.”

Bishop is looking forward to playing with Ritchie. 

“He’s in treatment a lot, trying to get healthy,” he said. “But once he can come back and play, it will be great to work with him and we’ll help each other get better.”

Whittingham said Vaki is getting work at nickel back as well as safety. 

“That will be a week-to-week thing as well during the season, depending on the matchup,” he said. “If it’s a good matchup for him to be on the slot receiver, depending on who that guy is, then we can play that three-safety scheme. If not, then we have (cornerback) Tao Johnson, who’s doing a really nice job. He has a lot of potential there.”

Oregon State quarterback Chance Nolan tries to escape the tackle of Utah safety Nate Ritchie Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Ritchie is nursing an injury this spring and is an important member of the Utes’ safeties room. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press