Utah football’s running backs room includes new faces, but plenty of options

Micah Bernard has most experience as a Ute, but Power Five transfers Chris Curry and T.J. Pledger have more career carries

FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2019, file photo, Idaho State defensive lineman Gilbert Varela reaches for Utah running back Devin Brumfield during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Salt Lake City. Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore, Micah Bernard and Ty Jordan will split carries this season. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

From a strictly football standpoint, Ty Jordan’s death on Dec. 26 left a significant hole at running back for the University of Utah.

Even before Jordan’s death, though, while the 2020 season was still being played, University of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham expressed a need to hit the NCAA Transfer Portal to add depth to the position. That has entirely to do with defections, both before and during last season.

During preseason camp, TJ Green was the odd-man out in a four-players-for-five-spots battle with Jordan, Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore and Micah Bernard. On Dec. 14, with one game remaining in Utah’s abbreviated five-game season, Brumfield and Wilmore announced their respective transfers within two hours of each other. By the time those two transferred, Jordan had a hammerlock on the position, eventually finishing his freshman season with 597 yards, six rushing touchdowns and Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors.

Between Jordan’s death and those three transfers, the legitimate options at the position were Bernard, with four-star freshman Ricky Parks not arriving until this month, so Whittingham did something about it in the portal.

Before spring practice began in March, the Utes scored LSU transfer Chris Curry and Oklahoma transfer TJ Pledger. Behind those two, Independence Community College’s Tavion Thomas committed last month.

Pledger broke out last season in Norman as a junior, rushing for 451 yards and nine touchdowns, but opted for a fresh start anyway. Curry had just 91 rushing attempts in three seasons with the Tigers, but played in some big-time games, most notably finishing with 90 yards on 16 carries in a College Football Playoff semifinal victory in 2019 against Oklahoma. Thomas led ICC in rushing in 2020, but spent the previous two seasons at Cincinnati, including rushing for 499 yards and six scores as a true freshman in 2018.

With the additions, Utah’s running backs room is now set, and it feels a little like last season. Instead of Bernard, Brumfield, Green, Jordan and Wilmore duking it out to take over for the record-setting Zack Moss, it is now Bernard, Curry, Pledger, Parks and Thomas all in the mix to take over duties from Jordan, who came on during the latter portion of 2020 as a force of nature. Of his 597 yards as a freshman, 468 of them came over Utah’s final three games, all of them wins.

Whittingham’s highest praise at the position during spring ball was going to Bernard, who he said was grading out the best among the group during live situations in practice. Bernard’s 15 carries for 76 yards in five games last season belie the fact that this will be his third year in the program and third year working with both offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and running backs coach Kiel McDonald. That level of experience is more than the other four candidates combined, a factor that should not be overlooked.

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.