As spring practice at the University of Utah hits the midway point this week, the running back room finds itself in a similar position compared to a year ago at this time.
Last spring, the room was crowded, with Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore, TJ Green and Micah Bernard all vying for carries, and that was before intriguing three-star recruit Ty Jordan was due to arrive on campus last summer.
Most of those names have changed, but the situation within the position group has not. Bernard is now joined by two Power Five transfers in Oklahoma’s T.J. Pledger and LSU’s Chris Curry this spring, while four-star recruit Ricky Parks is due on campus this summer.
“As of now, a very similar situation as last year going into fall camp, with the three guys that we’ve got at the top of the chart now, then adding Ricky Parks, but that could change,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “We’ve still got nine practices left this spring. As it sits right now, I think that’s the best bet, that it will be a four-guy competition.”
When Power Five-level transfers show up at a new home, they are understandably going to get a lot of attention. Curry, a redshirt sophomore, was on LSU’s vaunted 2019 national championship-winning team, which featured Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow. In the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Oklahoma, Curry started, carrying the ball 16 times for 90 yards.
Pledger played in 30 games across three seasons for the Sooners, rushing for 451 yards and six touchdowns in nine games during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season.
Whittingham has called Pledger more of a scatback, with his best comparison being former Utes running back John White, who registered back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2011 and 2012. Curry has been described by Whittingham as “more tackle-to-tackle,” but with the speed and quickness to get outside when necessary.
Pledger and Curry clearly figure into the plans, but in the middle of that transfer portal hype, Bernard is making his case for an extended look this spring and beyond.
Bernard survived a five-players-for-four-spots competition last summer to make the depth chart for Utah’s truncated five-game season.
With Jordan rapidly, semi-unexpectedly turning into a force of nature in Utah’s backfield, Bernard had just 15 carries for 76 yards across the five games, but he is now the most experienced player in the room. From a football standpoint, Jordan’s death on Christmas night left a big hole to fill, while Brumfield, Wilmore, and Green had already transferred within a two-month span.
Yes, Pledger and Curry have gotten the attention, but Bernard is entering his third year in the program, his third year with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, and his third year of understanding what the coaching staff expects of him.
For what it’s worth, when the Utes went live in practice on Saturday, Whittingham said Bernard graded out the best of the three running backs in that isolated portion of practice. Whittingham noted that a lot of weight is placed on those live sessions. The Utes will conduct a full scrimmage for the first time this spring on Saturday.
“I picked this place for a reason,” Bernard said Monday when asked if ever considered following Brumfield, Wilmore, and Green to the transfer portal. “My main goal is still to get to the league, and we produce here. It was just all that and when you take everything into consideration, why would I leave? There was no reason for me to do any of that.”
Added running backs coach Kiel McDonald: “He has exponentially grown. Micah was 17-years old when he got here, he was fresh out of high school. He graduated a year before he was supposed to. It’s a maturation process. To see him how he was when he first got here to now, it’s good to see. He’s got a lot in the tank, so I’m fired up to see where he goes.”