Why safety Cole Bishop could be the next great Utah defender

In each of the last two seasons, Utah has had a clear impact player on defense.
In 2021, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham called linebacker Devin Lloyd the “best defender that’s ever come through the University of Utah, at least in the modern era.”
Lloyd had five interceptions, a forced fumble and 255 tackles in his career with the Utes before being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2022.
Cornerback Clark Phillips III, the highest-rated recruit in the history of the program, backed up his hype on the field with nine interceptions, four pick-sixes, 21 pass deflections and one fumble recovery throughout his career. He’s now with the Atlanta Falcons after being drafted in 2023.
Now safety Cole Bishop, entering his third season, is the leader to pick up the mantle this year.
After starting the last six games of his freshman season, Bishop’s breakout season came in 2022. He led the Utes in tackles, with 83, including six for loss. He had an interception, three pass breakups and 1.5 sacks.
He flashed his ability both in finishing tackles and coverage, but also pressuring the quarterback at times.
With another season under his belt, one that earned him an All-Pac-12 honorable mention, Bishop is generating buzz throughout the conference. He was selected to the All-Pac-12 preseason first team, but says that he’s not buying his own hype — he has to go prove it on the field.
But it’s easy to see why Bishop is generating the talk. Last year, he was everywhere on the field nearly every game for the Utes.
He started out the year strong, with a season-high 12 tackles in the loss to Florida, and was a key part of the defense in every game.
Bishop’s best all-around game of the season came against Arizona State, where he finished with three tackles, a sack and an interception.
He looked like he was shot out of a cannon on his sack of ASU quarterback Emory Jones, and he picked him off on the Utah 3-yard line, preventing the Sun Devils from scoring a touchdown to open the fourth quarter.
“He’s an absolute phenom at safety,” Whittingham said after the game. “He’s everything you look for, so athletic, great in coverage, great blitzer and tackler. He’s the whole package. He’s got size at 6-2, 225 pounds. So you’re seeing one of the best safeties in the Pac-12 and in the country.”
Bishop’s leadership has improved every year, and he will be in the running to be named a captain this season.
While Bishop has one safety spot locked up, who will start at the other safety?
Sophomore Sione Vaki, who appeared in all 14 games last season for the Utes, looks like he will start at that position as of now.
Vaki played in all 14 games last season, playing where he was needed in the secondary, starting five games at the nickel back position late in the season. He’s expected to return back to the safety position full time this season, starting alongside Bishop.
He finished with 41 tackles, with 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and three pass breakups.
“He’s a great player,” Bishop said about Vaki. “He came in and did a similar thing in my freshman year towards the end of the season. Came in, started to start at the end. It’s awesome, going to push myself with him and vice versa. We’re always competing.”
Lone Peak product Nate Ritchie, who started all five games at safety in 2020, is back from a mission and will compete for a backup spot. Ritchie was unable to participate in spring practices due to an injury, but defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said at the start of fall camp that Ritchie is “ready to go.”
“It’s good having him out there,” Bishop said of Ritchie. “He’s obviously been on a mission, a little rusty starting out, but I mean every day he’s getting better and better since he started working out in the summer. It’s good seeing him.”
Following last season’s 29-26 loss at the Swamp, where the Utes allowed Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson to rush for 104 yards and three touchdowns, Bishop says the defense is ready for the rematch — though they will be facing a new quarterback.
“I know especially on the defense we want this one back, we had a pretty rough game last year,” Bishop said.

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