Devaughn Vele wants Utes to be 'feared,' not just 'respected' in 2022 season



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Devaughn Vele smiled when he was asked the question β€” more as a polite gesture than anything else.

"No. 8 is pretty cool β€” preseason in the USA Today," the reporter commented. "That's the highest preseason ranking in Utah history; that's got to feel pretty good getting that kind of recognition."

But Vele didn't bite.

The preseason rankings, after all, can be poison to a team, especially when the expectations have never been higher in Utah program history. No Utah team before it has ever been ranked a preseason top-10 team, and there's reason to believe next week's Associated Press Top 25 poll will have the Utes ranked higher.

It would be easy for the team to buy its own stock and dream about what could be up ahead: Pac-12 championship. Rose Bowl. College Football Playoff.

Not for Vele.

"I'm not big on trying to get too big headed, because if you see it β€” and I feel like I speak for the rest of the guys as well β€” if you see it and start thinking, like, oh, we're No. 8 now, we're a top-10 team, like it gets to our head and then we start getting complacent, and then we start jogging in practices," Vele said. "We don't go full speed, because we're like, oh, we're those guys; we'll just show up on game days.

"No, we should still have that chip on our shoulder."

Utah was picked as the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 and now they're receiving top-10 votes. What chip could be on their shoulder? They're certainly not going to be overlooked as an up-and-coming team.

For Vele and most of the other players from last season's squad, it's about finishing what was started. The Utes went toe-to-toe with perennial powerhouse Ohio State in the Rose Bowl β€” and even held a double-digit lead β€” but came out of it with a loss.

For the team, there were no moral victories or celebratory exclamations about coming close β€” even if it was just the first-ever Rose Bowl appearance for the program. The loss to Ohio State continues to burn deep within, and the team wants some retribution; they want to be the team that people fear, Vele said.

"We did it on the national stage: We won a Pac-12 championship, went nose-to-nose with Ohio State β€” everybody respects us," Vele said. "They see us now, they're like that's a really good football team now. But we want it to be a fearful team. Like when people see Alabama on their schedule, it's like, 'Oh, my goodness, it's Alabama. Like, it's the Crimson Tide.'

"We want that same thing for Utah. That's the next step we gotta go to, because now that we're respected, now we need people to fear us. So I feel like that's the drive that's helping everybody on the team right now to make those strides and make the changes that we need to be that team that is feared, not respected."

Utah has long been known for its defensive-first mentality and being one of the most physical matchups on an opponent's schedule. But after last season's offense, which scored 28 points or more in its final 10 games of the season, Utah has emerged on offense β€” and head coach Kyle Whittingham believes there could be another level to the veteran group.

Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele, left, makes a touchdown catch past Southern California cornerback Chris Steele (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Utah wide receiver Devaughn Vele, left, makes a touchdown catch past Southern California cornerback Chris Steele (8) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press)

Whittingham believes that if Utah can be "more explosive on the outside" and effective in deep-ball situations, the offense could unlock another level of play, one in which he said teams would need to "look out" for this season.

"We're no longer just a defensive school, we're an offensive school as well," Vele added.

To be feared, though, Utah can't have much weakness in its game β€” offense or defense. It's why Vele and the wide receiver room have worked hard in the offseason to become a much stronger asset to the team and not just a bystander to the run game or passing game to Utah's dynamic duo at tight end. The receivers have to be more involved and active.

"We were too complacent with that statement β€” like, oh, it's OK because we have tight ends that are good," Vele said. "It's like, no, we want to get the ball just as much as them because we're just as good as they are. Having that mentality that receivers are playmakers β€” we're supposed to be playmakers on the field, we're supposed to make those catches that nobody else could. If everybody could catch the ball, they'd all play receiver. But it's a lot different when you have somebody in your face and you gotta make that challenging catch."

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig put an emphasis on that in spring when he said the majority of explosive plays were "generated on the interior with the tight end play" and that the receivers needed to be more involved in the game β€” those one-on-one scenarios that free up players in all levels of the game.

"We're part of a group that can make a difference in the game," Vele said. "I felt like last year we had a great season, but as a receiver group, I felt like we won despite us a few times. Like, I felt like we could have been a lot more contributors to the season last year.

"We have a lot of expectations upon us and we have a lot of things to fulfill, but I'm confident we can do it."

Under Ludwig, who has made some slight "tweaks and modifications" to the offense this season, Utah has at its disposal a full arsenal of weapons at every level of the game to keep defenses guessing. Utah has a chance to be the feared team, but all facets of the offense have to click.

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer of University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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