The USC Trojans were threatening to cut into Utah’s 10-point lead with just over seven minutes to go in the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2 when Utes’ safety R.J. Hubert made the game-breaking play.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who later won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s top player, launched a pass down the sideline near the end zone. But the ball was intercepted at the last second by Hubert, who eventually ran out of bounds into a swarm of congratulatory Utah teammates.
“I have learned great lessons of resiliency, being persistent and believing in myself. I had to realize that God will sustain me in my efforts.” — R.J. Hubert
In one word, the play was “huge,” said Utes’ star cornerback Clark Phillips III.
“That was game-sealing, man,” Phillips said. “That was something I’m going to remember for the rest of my life because that’s a big play you need one of your team leaders, you know, one of your defensive playmakers to make in that moment to seal it.”
The pivotal play was sweeter for Hubert, a Latter-day Saint returned missionary, considering what he endured to return to the field after suffering multiple injuries in previous years.
“I have learned great lessons of resiliency, being persistent and believing in myself,” he said. “I had to realize that God will sustain me in my efforts. He will consecrate those efforts.”
Small town recruit and missionary
Hubert grew up in Logandale, Nevada, a town of more than 3,000 located roughly halfway between Mesquite and Las Vegas. He became a star athlete at Moapa Valley High School, where he suited up with about 30 varsity football players and was part of a graduating class of 120 students.
He flashed a big smile as he reflected on growing up in a supportive, family-friendly community and playing in back-to-back state championships as a receiver for the Pirates.
“It’s like none other,” Hubert said of his hometown. “It almost feels like a sacred place.”
Despite coming from a small school, Hubert fielded scholarship offers from Nevada, Army, Weber State, Northern Arizona and the University of Utah. His plans to serve a Latter-day Saint mission caused some to lose interest, but not the school he wanted most.
“Utah showed a lot of interest and I always wanted to play in the Pac-12. So when they offered me in October of 2015, I committed right then,” he said. “They were all right with me going on a mission.”
Hubert served a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Mississippi Jackson Mission, an experience that significantly strengthened his faith and testimony.
“Dedicating your life to the Lord, it’s something that is life-changing and something that helps you mature in a lot of ways,” he said. “I felt like my testimony grew tremendously during that time. It was like a springboard for the rest of my life.”
Battling back from injuries
Following his mission, Hubert started his career at Utah by converting from receiver to safety. He spent most of the 2018 season playing on the scout team and on special teams in games.
He played in 13 games as a sophomore in 2019, including three starts, before adversity struck.
Hubert suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 championship game against Oregon in 2019.
Then after a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign in which he saw limited playing time, Hubert suffered another season-ending knee injury in the 2021 spring game.
It was a tough journey to recovery, but he didn’t become embittered by his misfortunes.
“It’s tough when stuff like that happens. Some people will blame God and ask, ‘Why would you let this happen?’ For me, it was unfortunate but He didn’t do it to me,” Hubert said. “So just realizing that He is by my side through this whole rehab process, and He is going to help me get through and it will probably go a lot better and easier if I look to Him in everything I do.
“So that’s been my biggest thing — not blaming Him, but letting Him be a part of getting me back to where I can be.”
Healthy again in 2022
A healthy Hubert returned to the field in a big way for Utah’s 2022 season. Starting 12 of 13 games, he made a host of big plays for the Utes, including the following:
He recorded eight tackles and had a 47-yard fumble recovery return at Florida.
He logged his first career interception against Southern Utah and ran it back 39 yards for a touchdown.
He registered a career-best 12 tackles and a Rice-Eccles Stadium record 70-yard interception return in a win against Oregon State.
On the season, Hubert has 75 tackles, five pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions.
“I’m very proud of R.J. and for the adversity he’s faced and overcome. I’m just thrilled for him,” Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s head football coach, told the Deseret News. “I couldn’t be more happy for a young man to fight through that and have the success he’s having right now.”
Hubert credits lessons he learned as a missionary for helping him find success as a college football player.
“A lot of missionaries have this experience — there are times when you feel inadequate, like you don’t belong,” he said. “I’ve had some of those doubts within myself as a football player, and to cast aside those doubts, and realize I can do anything with the Lord’s support. The Lord has supported me in my journey as a football player and, in a way, my family as well.”
Off the field, Hubert and his wife, Shayla, are the parents of two children, Isaiah and Noah.
Returning to the Rose Bowl
Hubert saw action as a reserve in Utah’s 48-45 loss to Ohio State in last year’s Rose Bowl.
He and his teammates are happy to be back playing in such a prestigious bowl game, but are laser-focused on coming away with a victory this time. Hubert is looking forward to the match up with Penn State in the 109th Rose Bowl game on Jan. 2.
“It was cool to go to the Rose Bowl last year, but it was a letdown that we lost. Even though we gave a great effort, a loss is a loss. There are really no, I feel like, consolation prizes for losing the Rose Bowl,” Hubert told a group of reporters. “We made a lot of people proud, but it wasn’t good enough to our standards. Winning is our standard here. So yeah, it’s a big emphasis this year to win. ... I think it will be a special game.”