It’s not as if freshman safety Nate Ritchie can ease gradually into his role with the Utah defense. 

Ritchie, one of the youngsters in Utah’s secondary, has turned heads during practices and has received rave reviews going into the 2020 campaign. He’s expected to make an immediate impact.

“His progression has been very impressive. For a true freshman, he is mature beyond his years, physically and mentally. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s nearly 6-2 and 200 pounds. That’s a good size for a safety,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “He’s got speed, he’s got football IQ. Our expectations of Nate this year are very high. You’re going to see a lot of Nate Ritchie right out of the gate and he’s going to be a guy that we need to have perform well in that secondary. He’s going to get plenty of reps.” 

Utah’s secondary is young and talented — much like it was in 1977 when four freshmen were key contributors

On other occasions, Whittingham has compared Ritchie, a skilled playmaker, to former Utah star Chase Hansen, who’s currently with the New Orleans Saints. 

That’s a lot to live up to, no doubt.

Both Ritchie and Hansen have a lot in common, including the fact both hail from Lone Peak High. 

What does Ritchie think of that comparison to Hansen?

“It gives me a little fire under me to be compared to him because not only at my high school was he one of the greatest, but especially here at Utah he’s one of the greatest,” he said. “It shows that coach Whitt has some confidence in me, which really builds my confidence and being able to improve every day.”

Lone Peak’s Nate Ritchie celebrates after intercepting a Highland pass football game at Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Growing up, Ritchie watched Hansen play at both Lone Peak and Utah. 

“Nathan likes the comparison in some ways because Chase is such a great player. But by the same token, he wants to forge his own name,” said Ritchie’s dad, Brad. “Nate definitely noticed Chase and watched him. He had an influence on what Nate did because he was an older football player to look up to.”

How is Ritchie dealing with these high expectations?

“He feels a little pressure but then he doesn’t. He’s handling it well. Some of Nathan’s best football games were on the biggest stage, when the pressure was on,” Brad Ritchie said. “He gets really nervous but he gets down on his knees and prays and he feels like the Lord kind of helps him. Once he gets rolling, he performs really well when the pressure is on. He’s kind of introverted. Underneath, he’s nice and calm but inside he’s thinking, ‘I’m going to get you.’”

Utah football: JaTravis Broughton working hard to be starter at cornerback

At Lone Peak, Ritchie played on offense, defense and special teams. As a senior, he recorded 51 tackles, including five tackles-for-loss and a sack to go along with eight interceptions (151 return yards and three touchdowns).

Ritchie arrived on Utah’s campus during the summer. Because of the pandemic, the Pac-12 initially postponed the season until January at the earliest. Then, in September, the season was moved up to November. The Utes open at home on Nov. 7 against Arizona. 

At one point, when it appeared the season wouldn’t start until the winter, Ritchie considered leaving for a church mission before starting his college career. 

“For Nate it was, ‘Should I go on a mission now because we’re not going to play football?’ That came into play,” Brad Ritchie said. “We came to the conclusion that the Lord has directed Nate. He felt good about Utah. We figured we should just stay the course.” 

Nate Ritchie plans to leave for mission service after his freshman season ends. 

Junior wide receiver Britain Covey, who served a mission to Chile after his freshman season, has been one of the players that has befriended Nate Ritchie. Covey requested that his locker be next to his.  

Running late? While other Power Five leagues have been up and at it, Pac-12 lags further behind

“It’s been good to have that guy that I can fall back on, who’s like my friend, in the locker room,” Nate Ritchie said. “He’s been in the same situations I have.”

“He’s a complete stud of a guy,” Brad Ritchie said of Covey.

In addition to Covey, Nate Ritchie added that all the safeties have also taken him under their wing and have been willing to help and share knowledge. 

And there’s a lot to learn. What has Ritchie gleaned so far? 

“Honestly, it’s kind of surreal. I’ve pictured myself in this situation. It’s been very long and it’s very exciting to finally be able to play a game. I’m just really excited.” — Nate Ritchie

“Getting the defense down and having confidence in myself. Coming in and learning a whole new scheme is kind of hard and tricky and you’re going to have your down times,” he said. “You’re going to have times when you’re messing up and just want to give up because you feel like you’re not doing very well. You’ve just got to keep going consistently, keep learning every day and keep trying harder and harder.”

Like his teammates, Ritchie has waited longer than expected to take the field in a game setting. But he’s used to facing uncertainty. Due to the pandemic, Ritchie missed out on prom and other activities associated with a senior year of high school. 

“It can’t be any worse than having your senior year stripped from you,” Brad said. 

At Utah, he had to acclimate to untraditional workouts, featuring masks and social distancing. 

But now, the season is a little more than one week away. 

“Honestly, it’s kind of surreal. I’ve pictured myself in this situation,” Ritchie said of the season opener. “It’s been very long and it’s very exciting to finally be able to play a game. I’m just really excited.” 

Ritchie’s ready and he’s embracing the pressure and the high expectations. Bring it on. He can’t wait to prove himself at the college level.