Former University of Utah running back Devonta’e Henry-Cole transferred to Utah State to be a starter. He’s well on his way to that goal, thanks in part to help from an unlikely source.

Senior Jaylen Warren basically had the starting job on lock until Henry-Cole arrived on campus in late July. Instead of treating the player the team calls DHC like an adversary, though, Warren put out the welcome mat.

Now the two are pushing each other toward greater goals: a Mountain West Conference championship and careers in the NFL.

“My good friend on the team right now is Jaylen. We have a good connection, you know,” Henry-Cole said told The Salt Lake Tribune this week. "We’re both seniors and we’re both trying to move to the next level. So we’re helping each other out. So, we’re still competing with each other, but we just want the best for each other.

“Me and him, we just had this bond.”

Henry-Cole left the Utes after three years with the program specifically in search of that elusive starting position. He first transferred to BYU in February, enticed in part by the Cougars' challenging schedule. Those marquee games started slipping away, though, as conferences began canceling their seasons due to COVID-19. So, he transferred again in late July to USU. The Aggies were not only still slated to play at that time, but they had also graduated their leading rusher in Gerold Bright and brought in Henry-Cole’s lockermate at Utah, quarterback Jason Shelley.

UTAH STATE AT BOISE STATE


When • Oct. 24, 5 p.m.
TV • FS1

Of course, there were some trying times when the MW announced two weeks later that it, too, wouldn’t play football this fall. The conference reversed course Sept. 24, however, allowing for an eight-game, conference-only schedule starting Oct. 24.

“Yeah, I was like, ‘Oooh, what’s going on?’” said Henry-Cole, a graduate student who is working on a degree in anthropology. “Now we’re playing next week, so I’m excited.”

Warren is currently the only Aggies player standing in Henry-Cole’s way of getting that starting nod for USU’s high-stakes opener at defending MW champion Boise State. Facing that caliber of competition at the outset, the Aggies no doubt will be looking for a back with big-game experience. That boils down to Warren and Henry-Cole, though both have had limited starting opportunities.

Warren, the only returning USU letter winner at running back, started the first three games of 2019 for the Aggies before giving way to Bright. In his first year in Logan after transferring in from Snow College, Warren, the 2016 Tribune Player of the Year out of East High, became USU’s second-leading rusher. The 5-foot-8, 215-pound back accumulated 569 yards on 112 carries with five touchdowns.

Henry-Cole, meanwhile, started just once for the Utes, as a sophomore in 2017. That was one of just two complete seasons for the oft-injured back, who played in just one game his freshman year and took a redshirt during the 2018 season with a pre-existing arm injury. Still, in his time at Utah, the 5-11, 195-pound tailback produced 469 yards on 90 carries with four rushing touchdowns and one TD catch.

Utah running back Devonta'e Henry-Cole (7) outruns UCLA defensive back Elijah Gates, rear, in the second half during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Warren said as far as he sees it, both he and Henry-Cole can be considered the starters, no matter who first takes the field. And he’s happy to have someone to share the position with.

“For us to run our offense effectively, it can’t just be one back there,” Warren told The Tribune. “So knowing I have someone to complement me or maybe even just to help me or help the team, it takes a lot off of me thinking I have to do it all by myself. I got, you know, some support.”

With a short fall camp, a new quarterback under center and a large chunk of the schedule expected to be played in freezing weather, the run game will be a key component of the Aggies' offense.

“We’ve got five guys that are battling right now for playing time,” USU running backs coach Dave Schramm said in a press release, “and we’re going to need them all.”

Schramm, himself a former Utah assistant coach, noted that aside from Warren and Henry-Cole, the RB corps is “pretty green.”

Pailate Makakona counts as the only other running back who was with USU last season. The West Valley City product redshirted with the Aggies after spending 2018 at Colorado Mesa. John Gentry, a three-star recruit out of Texas who was rated the No. 57 recruit nationally at his position for 2019 by 247Sports.com, has talent but no experience.

“It’s kind of still going fast for him as a freshman, which is 100% to be expected,” Aggie coach Gary Andersen said. “And, you know, [we] like what we see. He’s got tremendous speed.”

Other newcomers include sophomores Cooper Jones and Bryan Lumsden, freshman Elelyon Noa and redshirt freshman Oakley Hussey.

All the running backs have begun to really bond, Warren said, not just the starters. And as the others come along, he and Henry-Cole will both welcome the competition.

“You don’t want to just kill one running back in the whole game. You know, you can have a rotation,” Henry-Cole said. "You have to have a healthy backfield. So this is the group that will be rotating and everything.

“So it’s gonna be a great season for both of us, yeah, and this team.”