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Utah’s safety situation is ‘wide open’ as departures open door for competition

Graduation, an injury and a transfer create opportunities for newcomers

Lone Peak safety Nate Ritchie during game at Corner Canyon in Draper on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. Ritchie is one of three true freshmen at safety who could earn playing time with Utah this season.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Two words: “wide open.”

That’s how Utah coach Kyle Whittingham describes the situation at safety. As is the case at cornerback, the Utes have holes to fill. They need two new starters and some backups.

The graduation of Julian Blackmon and Terrell Burgess, who are both headed to the NFL Scouting Combine, hurts. They had a combined 11.5 tackles for loss and nine pass breakups.

Individually, Burgess had 81 tackles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Blackmon made 60 stops and intercepted four passes.

As if their departures weren’t enough, Utah is dealing with an injury to top reserve R.J. Hubert (22 tackles). The junior got a lot of playing time last season, but will be sidelined for spring ball. Whittingham said he’s questionable to be ready for fall as well — noting that “it’s touch and go” at this point.

Then there’s Jason Shelley. He ultimately decided to enter the transfer portal after being moved from quarterback to safety. Before he decided to do so, Whittingham said Shelley had a big upside on defense “if he continues to stay excited about the switch and give it his all which he has.”

Hubert’s injury and Shelley’s departure has opened the door for three true freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

Ben Renfro (Magnolia HS, Texas) is already enrolled at the U.

“We think he’s got a good chance,” Whittingham said.

The Utes, he added, are also “really high” on two other signees — Kamo’i Latu (Saint Louis HS, Hawaii) and Nate Ritchie (Lone Peak HS).

“It is a little atypical to bring in three, usually it is one or two. We took a big hit this year with losing those two seniors and we were already thin there,” Whittingham said of the situation at safety following the early signing period. “So, that was the reason for taking three.”

A spirited battle is expected.

“It will be good competition at safety this fall and this spring for some of them,” Whittingham said.