Utes football may have found its starting running back in Micah Bernard

Bernard rushed for 146 yards and his first career touchdown on just 12 carries Saturday night at BYU

(University of Utah Athletics) Running back Micah Bernard participates in Utah football spring practice, Monday, March 15, 2021.

Two years and two-plus seasons into his college career, Micah Bernard’s time at the University of Utah has arrived.

The third-year freshman rushed for a career-high 146 yards and his first collegiate touchdown on just 12 carries Saturday night in a 26-17 loss at BYU, potentially solidifying his place as the Utes’ No. 1 option at running back. His four catches out of the backfield against the Cougars give him seven catches on seven targets through two games.

For some perspective, through the first nine games of his career across the 2019, 2020, and 2021 seasons, Bernard had a total of 111 rushing yards and seven receptions. He took a redshirt in 2019 as a true freshman, seeing action in four games, but only on special teams.

In one evening in Provo, with Utah’s running backs situation not fully squared away, Bernard made the strongest case yet as to why anyone’s role in that position group should expand moving forward.

“I’ve been wanting to get back to my old self, and I feel like I’m getting there,” Bernard said late Monday afternoon after practice as the Utes prepare to face San Diego State on Saturday in Carson, Calif. “I still have a long way to go, so I just have to keep it up.”

“He can do it all. He can catch, he can block, a lot of the guys in this program do those types of things,” Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald said. “He’s really grown into someone who can be a three-down back for us.”

Bernard’s growth was never expected to be a fast process. His arrival at this moment, this opportunity has been an exercise in patience and perseverance because, in this day and age of the NCAA Transfer Portal offering the fastest path to a fresh start, Bernard has stayed the course.

Merely rattling off the players Bernard has had to wait behind since arriving in 2019 as a 17-year-old from Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif., is impressive.

Zack Moss, Devin Brumfield, and Jordan Wilmore. Devonta’e Henry-Cole, the late Ty Jordan, and TJ Green.

Moss left Utah in 2019 as the most accomplished running back in the history of the program. Brumfield (Tulane), Wilmore (Fresno State), Henry-Cole (Utah State) and Green (Liberty) all transferred for one reason or another.

In 2020, as Utah prepared for a truncated, COVID-impacted season, Bernard survived a five guys-for-four spots camp battle, along with Brumfield, Wilmore and Jordan. The odd-man out, Green, transferred before the season started. As last season rolled on, Jordan took command of the position, with Wilmore and Brumfield announcing their respective intentions to transfer ahead of the Dec. 19 regular-season finale.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Charlie Brewer (12) hands off to Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard (2), in football action between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Bernard, who played in all five games last season, registering 76 yards on 15 carries, never wavered. Not when his carries were limited, not with Jordan having taken over before his tragic Christmas night death, not as Kyle Whittingham hit the portal for more help, bringing in T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma), Chris Curry (LSU) and Tavion Thomas (Independence Community College).

“I’m incredibly proud of Micah,” Whittingham said. “He’s grown up right before our eyes. He was a very young senior in high school. He has matured and developed a toughness and a consistency about him that is admirable. It’s a credit to him, it’s a credit to his position coach, Kiel McDonald, but he has stayed the course. He hasn’t gotten ahead of things, he let himself develop at a good pace, and now he’s reaping those rewards for his work ethic and how far he’s come development-wise.”

Utah’s latest depth chart, released Monday morning is to be taken with a grain of salt given that Bernard, Thomas, Pledger and Curry continue to be separated by an ‘OR.’ If one chooses to believe that Whittingham, McDonald, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig are still seeking to sort things out to some extent, there should be no big disagreement, but to believe that Bernard has not separated himself from the other three through two games is simply not true given what has happened thus far.

Pledger and Curry, Whittingham’s two biggest portal acquisitions not named Charlie Brewer, have been non-factors. Thomas ran for 107 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries in the Sept. 2 opener vs. Weber State, then started off well vs. BYU, but has lost a fumble in each game.

Thomas has the wherewithal to be the workhorse running back that Utah often employs, but Bernard has been more consistent, more explosive with four runs of at least 19 yards vs. BYU, and has shown the ability to be a reliable pass-catching option.

McDonald said Monday that a running back hierarchy is coming into focus, and that Bernard is capable of being a “20-plus back,” meaning he is capable of getting 20 carries per game.

When Utah goes through its final pregame warmups on Saturday afternoon at Dignity Health Sports Park, the expectation is that Bernard will be in the backfield, lined up behind Brewer.

“It’s much easier to just bail out, push the eject button, get out and go somewhere else,” Whittingham said. “There is starting to become enough of a body of work and experiences, where these guys see guys transfer, maybe it doesn’t have a great ending, and maybe realizing, ‘Hey, maybe it’s good where I’m at and I should stay the course.’ I think that has a bearing on it as well, that we’ve seen some guys transfer and really not have much success. I think that is part of it, but I’m elated that a guy like Micah has taken the course he has, maintained his work ethic, hasn’t looked for instant success, and has been willing to pay the price to get where he’s gotten.”