How Kyle Whittingham uses the NCAA Transfer Portal has changed, and Micah Bernard is the proof

Bernard, a fifth-year junior running back, entered the transfer portal on Jan. 4 but was back with the Utes before February.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez | AP) Utah running back Micah Bernard answers questions during a press conference ahead of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Penn State Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles.

Roster construction and personnel management in college football is not what it was less than five years ago.

The advent of the NCAA Transfer Portal in the fall of 2018 allowed a clearer nationwide picture of who was transferring. When new regulations were introduced in 2021 that allowed student-athletes to use the portal once without sitting out a season after transferring, it meant immediately eligible help was available.

None of this was lost on Kyle Whittingham, who wisely adapted to the changing landscape. Since the fall of 2018, the transfer portal, both in terms of guys coming and guys leaving, has been a clear net positive for the University of Utah head coach.

During a recent interview, Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune the most recent transfer portal cycle “went very well and we’ve definitely come out on the plus side when you look at the portal, who was lost through the years and who we’ve gained.”

“Another thing people don’t realize is that a lot of guys who left for the portal were encouraged by us to go in the portal, trying to get them into a situation where they can play sooner and maybe at a level that suits them better,” Whittingham said. “The portal’s not always a bad thing when guys can get themselves in a better situation, in a level that equates better with their abilities.”

It is worth noting that initially Whittingham was opting for something of a firm stance, that if a player left his program for the portal there was no turning back. What was done was done. (Though former wide receiver Jaylen Dixon entering the portal in Oct. 2020, remaining on campus as a non-squad member, addressing some mental health issues and ultimately returning to the team the following February is the big example to the contrary.)

While that firm stance may have made sense back in 2018, and even as recently as 2021 as Dixon’s return made news, it makes less sense now according to Whittingham.

“Well, first of all, that statement was three years ago and is no longer applicable,” Whittingham said. “With all that movement and with the way things have progressed, our stance now is: If a guy goes to the portal and wants to come back, if it’s good for him, if it’s good for us, then we’re very open to that.”

The prime example for this new way of thinking is Micah Bernard.

Bernard opted for the portal on Jan. 4, just days after his fourth-year sophomore season came to a close. By the end of the month, Bernard had exited the transfer portal and will be present for Utah’s spring practice, which begins March 21.

So, what happened? A mutually beneficial situation.

“Micah Bernard is a perfect example of that, but it has to be win-win, it has to be good for the player and good for us,” Whittingham said. “No longer is there a hard stance if you’re in the portal, you’re done here. That doesn’t make sense the way the rules are now to take, I don’t want to say a stubborn, but a hard-line stance on that. You have to treat each case on a case-by-case basis and make your decision in the best interest of the team and of the player.”

Bernard’s desire to return and Whittingham’s willingness to allow it gives the latter one less thing to worry about for an offense that will spend the summer waiting for the return of quarterback Cam Rising. Rising suffered a torn left ACL in the Rose Bowl vs. Penn State.

Bernard, who has 272 touches on offense across 34 career games, including two Pac-12 championship games and two Rose Bowls, will now be the elder statesman in a capable, albeit eclectic, running backs room.

Quarterback-turned-running back Ja’Quinden Jackson now has a full offseason to work at his new position, Whittingham expects Chris Curry, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury, to be limited this spring, but ready for fall camp, and Jaylon Glover did enough last season as a freshman to make one believe he can have a tangible impact as a sophomore.

Bernard, though, is the most versatile of the group.

“He brings a lot to the offense, we were elated when he decided to come back,” Whittingham said. “He definitely knows what we expect. He’s a multi-talented guy that can do a lot of different things for us.”

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