The play was designed to go right, directly behind offensive guard Junior Salt.
Almost instantly, Bubba Poole knew that it wasn’t going to work. There was simply too much congestion to that side. So Utah’s sophomore running back reversed direction, hoping to find a bit of running room. Immediately he saw left tackle CJ Poutasi flatten a BYU player with a pancake block, creating a hole. Poole squirted through and exploded for 65 yards on the LaVell Edwards Stadium turf.
Almost three weeks following Utah’s 20-13 win over the Cougars, Poole is still getting teased by his teammates for getting caught from behind.
“I’m a little angry that I couldn’t outrun the angle,” Poole says with a slight smile. “I’m still getting text messages from home about that.”
Until recently, Poole was largely an unknown to Ute fans. Now, people are clamoring to know where he came from. He’s Utah’s top running back. Having supplanted Kelvin York — thanks to consecutive great performances against Oregon State and BYU — he leads the team with 330 yards rushing. He’s third on the team with 15 receptions.
Hip-hop artist Drake is famous for a song called “Started From the Bottom.” It’s an analogy that almost perfectly fits Poole. He’s a guy who started out in life as collateral damage, shot in the stomach as an infant in a dispute over a car. He’s a guy who fought his way through junior college as an academic casualty. He began spring practice fourth on Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s running back depth chart, but relentlessly worked his way up.
Now, as the Utes prepare for their Saturday game with No. 5 Stanford at Rice-Eccles Stadium, Poole is no longer be an afterthought. He will be featured along with York and Lucky Radley. He will be counted on to provide a running game against one of the best defenses in the country.
“I just tried to stay positive and keep doing what the coaches were telling me,” Poole said. “I wanted to contribute in any way possible and be ready when I had my chance. Football is all about taking advantage of an opportunity. That’s all I wanted to do.”
Poole is from the rough inner-city of Las Vegas, the part of town they don’t tell tourists about. His given name is James, but almost everyone calls him by the nickname handed to him at birth by his uncle J.J. His mother, Jeanetta Edmond, and his cousin Brenda both call him Noodles, owing to a lifelong affection for Top Ramen.
He was in his crib when he was shot. Two men attempted to rob his father, TJ, of one of his low-rider, designer cars that are popular on the West Coast. Poole says he barely remembers the shooting, if at all. Until he was 16, he told people made-up stories about the robbery. He refused to let it define him.
Instead, Poole would rather be noted for his academic work at Saddleback Junior College, where he crammed two years of school into one. That’s how badly he wanted to get out of the juco and join the Utes.
“I was upset at myself because I thought it should’ve never come to that,” Poole said. “I should’ve been more attentive to my schoolwork in high school.”
A non-qualifier heading into college, Poole made it through by taking 26 credits a semester. Most students take no more than 15, but Poole insisted on the heavier load, even taking 14 credits during the summer months.
“I had to sign a paper with Saddleback saying that if I failed it wasn’t their fault,” Poole said. “They didn’t recommend that I [take such a heavy class load].”
Simply, Poole wanted to play college football and he wanted to do so as quickly as possible. He had committed to Utah while in high school. While at Saddleback, he had interest from Washington and Oregon. But each had full recruiting classes. To go to either school, Poole would have had to return to Saddleback for another year.
In the meantime, Poole was returning home to Las Vegas virtually every weekend. His mother thought it was a bad habit — and broke him of it.
“I thought he would quit [college],” Edmond said. “I used to tell him to stop coming home. I told him to stay out of Las Vegas.”
Finally a Ute
Eventually, Poole stopped going home and committed to the Utes — who remained interested in him all along.
Last season, Poole was expected to battle with York to be John White’s backup. But he arrived late at preseason camp in order to finish up his junior college credits, and almost immediately sprained his ankle, forcing him to miss a month.
By the time he returned from the injury, Poole and the coaches determined that the best course for him was to redshirt. He made the most of the opportunity. Poole ran on the scout team, he worked out with the return team. Eventually, he caught the eye of staff.
“Bubba makes plays out there,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said “He’s a guy who makes people miss and he’s athletic. He adds a dimension that really helps us.”
One of Poole’s biggest attributes this year has been the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He made a combined 12 receptions against Oregon State and BYU.
His numbers against UCLA a week ago dipped — five carries for 26 yards — but that’s because York has run much more effectively since losing his starting job. Whittingham said Monday that all three running backs would continue to share the job until somebody separates himself.
Which means Poole will continue to be a prominent part of the Utah offense.
“He’s someone who really can make people miss,” Utah quarterback Travis Wilson said. “That’s something the offense needs. And he’s very versatile and effective either running or catching the ball. It’s good to have him in back of you.”
Bubba Poole file
• From Las Vegas
• Leads Utah with 330 yards rushing
• Has 15 catches for 120 yards
• Was given the name Bubba at birth by his uncle J.J.
• Graduated from Saddleback Junior College (Calif.) in one year