‘Showing a lot of promise’: After four years at Stanford, safety Alaka’i Gilman arrives at Utah with battle-tested experience

Stanford safety Alaka'i Gilman, left, intercepts a pass intended for Colorado wide receiver Travis Hunter in the end zone in overtime of an NCAA college football game early Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Back in 2019, Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley was one of many coaches trying to secure the commitment of up-and-coming three-star safety Alaka’i Gilman.

It was hard for Gilman to pass up Stanford, though.

After choosing David Shaw and the Cardinal, Gilman played 32 games at Stanford, growing into a starting role by his fourth season in the program.

The Honolulu, Hawaii, product started nine games at safety for Stanford last season before missing the final three games of the campaign, finishing the season with 50 tackles, an interception and four pass deflections. He earned an All-Pac-12 honorable mention nod for his play in 2023.

After four years in Palo Alto, which he said he appreciated, Gilman felt like he needed a change and something new. He entered his name into the transfer portal, and it couldn’t have been better timing for Utah, which had two open safety spots after Cole Bishop and Sione Vaki declared for the NFL draft.

Scalley, who Gilman already had a relationship with, recruited him for a second time, laying out the situation in the safety room at Utah. Along with the departures of Bishop and Vaki, safeties Jadon Pearson and Darrien “Bleu” Stewart entered the transfer portal.

As Gilman looks to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Alohi, who is a safety with the Los Angeles Chargers, he felt Utah could get him ready for the next level.

“In terms of developing guys for the next level, this is probably one of the best places that are known for putting out defense players, and so I was excited to be able to be coached by such an intelligent, brilliant mind like coach Scalley,” Gilman said.

With four years of Division I football under his belt, Gilman was a key transfer portal pickup to inject experience into the safety room.

“I’ve definitely taken some leaps in the past recent years in terms of my football development,” Gilman said. “I’ve really invested a lot of time in learning football and not just learning my position and learning what I do as a safety, but also what other people do around me. It honestly helps me as a player to fit well, mesh well within a defense if I know other people’s jobs.”

Nate Ritchie has played two season at Utah, starting every game in 2020 and then playing in the backfield in 11 games (222 snaps) in 2023 when he returned from his church mission, starting three contests. Jonathan Hall, heading into his second year in the program, played 92 snaps over six games, including a start in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The other players in contention for the two starting jobs as of now are Tao Johnson, who’s made the transition from nickel to safety this offseason, and Gilman.

“Good group of safeties. We’ve got four guys who are really taking charge. Nate Ritchie, (Jonathan) Hall are doing a really nice job and really performing well and then the Gilman kid who just transferred in from Stanford is showing a lot of promise and Tao Johnson we think is going to be really special,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

A smooth transition into a new program isn’t always guaranteed, especially when you arrive two weeks before spring camp, but with family in Bountiful and Utah County, Gilman was already familiar with the state ahead of arriving in Salt Lake City.

Additionally, his dad, Asai, played college football at Southern Utah.

“I’m adjusting pretty well and obviously the coaches and guys are helping me out,” Gilman said.

The aspect of Utah’s program, and Scalley’s defense, that stands out the most for the 5-foot-10, 194-pound safety so far is culture.

“I think for me it was kind of cool to see that once I got in, the culture was completely set. The foundation was laid, and the vet guys on the team who have been leading this defense for years are doing a great job of continuing that tradition of great culture,” Gilman said.

“And I think it obviously starts from the top down, from the head coach to coach Scalley, the DC, all the position coaches, but it trickles down into the guys in the locker room and it’s really cool to see how well dudes mesh together and how well they play on the field.”

Much of Utah’s 2023 defense is returning, as it brings back 71% of its defensive contributors from last season, per ESPN’s Bill Connelly. That continuity is vital as the Utes head into their first-ever season in the Big 12.

Aside from consensus All-American Jonah Elliss, a big loss to be sure, every starter returns on the defensive line, plus every starting linebacker is back.

In the backfield, though, there’s open starting spots to be filled.

The starting nickel back position is open with Johnson making the move to safety, and one of the outside cornerback spots needs to be filled with JaTravis Broughton and Miles Battle gone.

Smith Snowden will likely start at nickel, where he played 105 snaps last season, but there’s competition for that outside cornerback spot and the two safety spots.

The battle at safety is a key one to watch as the Utes finish up spring practice, and will be especially interesting to follow through fall camp as Utah readies for its season-opener against Southern Utah on August 29.

“I think we got a talented group of guys, a lot of guys who have had some time,” Gilman said. “I think everybody has their own strengths.

“Everybody has things that they bring to the table and that they do well for the defense and I’m excited to see how much more we improve throughout the spring.”