The moment that framed Devonta’e Henry-Cole’s freshman season as a Utah running back is captured in the simple, shorthand style of the play-by-play account from the third quarter of the Utes’ mid-October victory at Oregon State.
“Second and 7 at Utah 38: Henry-Cole, D. rush for 2 yards to the Utah 40.”
That’s not a snapshot of Henry-Cole’s season. It’s the entire story. One play, call it a day — and a year’s eligibility, gone in an instant.
“It’s a shame,” coach Kyle Whittingham said this week, wincing about the subject of Henry-Cole’s intended redshirt season. “We hate to waste a year on a kid with one carry.”
He didn’t like it, either. “It did bother me,” Henry-Cole acknowledged, “but like I said, I’m here to help the team.”
So the Florida native is left with three years of eligibility, hoping to become a rare case in recent Utes history of a running back who arrives as a freshman and develops into a featured player. Utah keeps relying on junior college transfers at the position, although Zack Moss may break that trend. Moss, also a sophomore from Florida, is the team’s No. 1 back, followed by Henry-Cole, with Armand Shyne having been injured last week.
“I’m confident this year; I’m ready to play this year,” Henry-Cole said.
Injuries to other backs gave Henry-Cole an opportunity to play last season, even if the whole thing didn’t play out as hoped. The explanation for why Henry-Cole was mismanaged revolves around Joe Williams, the Utes running back who came out of retirement. Injuries led the Utes coaching staff to search for replacements after Shyne and Jordan Howard were lost for the season and Moss also was hurt in October.
Whittingham and Dennis Erickson, then Utah’s running backs coach, activated Henry-Cole that week, while welcoming Williams’ return and temporarily moving receiver Cory Butler-Byrd into the backfield.
It all made a reasonable amount of sense at the time. But nobody could have known that Williams would become so rejuvenated as a durable, productive back and be drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. Moss returned the following week against UCLA but would carry the ball only 18 times in the last six games — compared with Williams’ 154 attempts.
And none for Henry-Cole.
Whittingham’s recollection is that the freshman subsequently appeared on special teams, but Henry-Cole says that 2-yard run stood as his only play of the season. Williams wore down in the second half of the game at Oregon State after having been idle for five weeks, but he returned to the field after Henry-Cole’s brief appearance.
Henry-Cole’s friends and relatives in Florida “were all shocked” by the turn of events, he said. But he told them, “I’m a team person.”
A segment of Utes fans expressed outrage via Twitter about the misuse of Henry-Cole after the Oregon State game and again after the season, when they pointed out the lack of return for a year’s eligibility. Their complaints were justified.
BYU fans also were upset in October when quarterback Tanner Mangum took two kneel-down snaps at Michigan State, voiding his potential redshirt season as a sophomore. But that was different. As Mangum tweeted, “And to everyone freaking out about me ‘burning’ my redshirt ... there was never a plan for me to redshirt! I’m already 23!”
Mangum went another month without playing, but he appeared in the last four games of the year, starting the Poinsettia Bowl vs. Wyoming after Taysom Hill was injured in the regular-season finale.
In Henry-Cole’s case, having the Utes coaches use him at all last season is a sign that redshirting no longer is standard practice. “Not as prevalent as it used to be,” Whittingham said.
Whittingham still wishes Utah would have derived more value from Henry-Cole’s freshman year, for the sake of the player and the program. The irony is that his lost season will become more meaningful if Henry-Cole develops into a big-time contributor. In that case, everyone might be able to live with their regrets.