As a true freshman in 2020, Nate Ritchie started all five games of that pandemic-shortened season at free safety. 

The Lone Peak High product recorded 28 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a sack. He also had a pass deflection and a fumble recovery.

“He’s going to be absolutely stellar for us. He’s a kid, like (linebacker) Sione Fotu, who was a starter before his mission. We’re expecting him to be a huge factor as well.” — Utah DC Morgan Scalley on Utah safety Nate Ritchie

After the season, Ritchie departed for a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the New England area. 

Ritchie returned at the end of December 2022, just days before the Utes played in their second-straight Rose Bowl, and he enrolled in school in January. 

However, due to an injury, Ritchie was unable to participate in spring practices. He wasn’t made available to reporters for interviews during the spring due to his injury.

Coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s planning on Ritchie being ready to go for the 2023 season. 

“We expect him to be a full-go this summer as well. In fact, everybody but one or two guys that weren’t with us in spring should be full-go at some point this summer. There are only one or two injuries that would be impacting the fall and I don’t want to list those guys just yet. He should be able to start working himself back in in June or July.”

Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley has high expectations for Ritchie. 

“Nate Ritchie did not have a practice in spring, clearing up some things, a post-mission injury,” he said. “He’s going to be absolutely stellar for us. He’s a kid, like (linebacker) Sione Fotu, who was a starter before his mission. We’re expecting him to be a huge factor as well.”

Will Ritchie be ready to go in time for fall camp?

“Oh, yeah,” Scalley said. “It wasn’t something that was ultra serious but something that needed time to heal. He should be fine.”

Though Ritchie hasn’t been able to practice, he has made a strong impression on his teammates. 

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“He was voted to our leadership council right off of his mission. He’s a guy that people respect and what he’s done for the program before his mission,” Scalley said. “He’s been to all of our meetings and guys have been asking him questions about the defense. He’s as engaged as you can be without getting reps.

“The guys that played with him obviously recognize what he brought in terms of leadership before he left,” he added. “Just respect his opinion and his knowledge of our defense that he owned before he left on his mission. We talk about leadership — we don’t take it lightly here. It’s very telling what our players think of Nate.”

Scalley can relate to Ritchie in that he also played safety at Utah after returning from a two-year mission. What are the challenges associated with returning from a mission and trying to play football at a high level?

“Physically, you may have been doing pushups and situps but you haven’t been hitting and taking on blocks and your body can change when you’re not doing full-time weight-lifting. So there’s that,” Scalley said. “Then the mental aspect is, priorities can change in the mission field.

“You’re spending two years serving other people and they come back and now it’s getting acclimated because for two years, it’s been all about other people, serving other people. What’s your major going to be? It’s all about you now. Some kids have a tough time with that and getting reacclimated into a college football program.”

It’s certainly been a frustrating situation for Ritchie, Scalley said. 

“One thing he needs to understand is how much we trust him. That’s the one thing, that kids come back and say, ‘Can I do it at this level?’ We say, ‘Yeah, you can do it. We just need to get you back.’ That’s no different from any returned missionary that we’ve had,” Scalley said.

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“He’s a very competitive young man, just like you want him to be. But you have to help them be patient and understand that we trust you, we trust your ability — let’s get your body to where it needs to be before we get going full speed.”

Though his first season as a Ute was truncated, it still provided Ritchie valuable experience. 

“It was tremendous. Not much has changed schematically or with terminology since he left,” he said. “Within the first couple of days, he was like, ‘I’m totally understanding and everything is coming back to me.’ So he’s a high football IQ kid anyway.”

Ritchie can play both strong safety and free safety, as can Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki. 

“Free safety is so much more about your ability to plant and get sideline to sideline,” Scalley said. “All three of those guys — Nate, Sione and Cole — have very good ball skills. They can go high-point a football. I’m pleased with what I saw from spring from (Bishop and Vaki).”

The Ute coaching staff is counting on a healthy Ritchie joining the defense in the fall.

Utah safety Nate Ritchie attempts to tackle Oregon State QB during game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City. After starting his freshman season, Ritchie left to serve a two-year church mission, but is back with the Utes, where big things are expected of him. | AP