SALT LAKE CITY — Bubba Poole has spent most of his football life doing one thing: running the ball.
But after fellow senior running back Devontae Booker, who amassed more than 1,500 yards last season along with a list of accolades, announced he was returning for his senior season at the University of Utah, Poole decided to find another way onto the football field.
He approached coaches about how he might be able to earn playing time, and they suggested slot receiver.
“I knew it was something that I was always interested in,” said the Las Vegas native. “Once they told me I’d have the chance to make it a permanent thing, that’s when I started to take it more seriously.”
Poole said coaches suggested he learn to play primarily as a slot receiver because it was a wide-open competition now that Kaelin Clay has graduated. And through five spring practices, coaches are impressed with Poole’s adaptability.
“Bubba is making a nice transition to the slot receiver,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham last week. “He caught some balls today that were really nice catches, and he seems to be transitioning well.”
So well, in fact, that Poole is staying put — despite news that running back Troy McCormick will miss the remainder of spring ball and that his return this fall "is in doubt" after suffering a serious knee injury last week in camp. Instead of moving Poole back to his old position to back up Booker, he was elevated to the top spot at slot on this week's depth chart.
Poole said the most difficult aspect of the transition is the most obvious.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Mainly, just from my couple of weeks …the biggest difference is, of course, more catching. We catch the ball at running back, but not nearly as much.”
Wide receiver Kenneth Scott said what Poole is doing is pretty difficult.
“Especially the slot, you have to know defenses really well,” Scott said. “You’ve got to read the triangle at all times, make sure (you know where) the linebacker, safety, corner is. … Slot receiver is very hard. You’ve got to know the whole game.”
Both coaches and Scott mentioned one attribute Poole has that will likely make him successful as a slot receiver.
“I think (he’s) very capable,” Scott said, “because he has vision. All he has to do is learn the defensive concepts, the coverages. … As soon as he catches the ball, there he goes turning into a running back again.”
Poole said the best part is that he’s always doing something to help the play succeed, no matter what the call.
“Probably one of the best parts about it is that you’re always involved,” he said, “whether it’s coming to you or not. You have a key play, a blitz, a linebacker coming to your side, you may have to get the receiver next to you open, that kind of thing. So I like it a lot.”
Poole approached Whittingham about changing his number (from No. 34) shortly after officially changing positions. He chose No. 8 because he was inspired by two players who wore that number last year for the Utes.
“I thought No. 8 specifically because of Kaelin (Clay) and Nate (Orchard),” Poole said, smiling. “I wanted to wear that number and kind of do what they did. It was motivation for me.”
Poole said the ups and down of learning a new position can be difficult, but he’s also enjoying the possibilities with the knowledge that he may still see time at running back should the Utes need him there.
He said so far nickel backs Justin Thomas and Boobie Hobbs have given him the toughest challenges defensively.
“Justin Thomas, he’s real good, he’s real patient,” Poole said. “Then you have Boobie … and he’s more aggressive. …They each have their own styles.”
Poole said he spends a lot of time watching film so he understands all the aspects of the position.
“I’m just trying to learn my plays and keep getting repetition at everything,” he said. “I’m working hard, mainly just catching. I get with the quarterbacks on my own and just catch. Because that’s the biggest difference.”
EXTRA POINTS: Freshman Tani Leha’uli has replaced McCormick as Booker’s backup at running back ... Senior Evan Moeai is listed as the starter at tight end this week ... Three new backup additions to the depth chart include sophomore Suna Tauteoli (mac linebacker), redshirt freshman Aaron Amaama (right guard) and freshman Tyrone Smith (wide receiver) ... The Utes are scheduled to practice Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday this week. The latter will be a scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium, beginning at 10 a.m.