Among Utah’s intriguing position battles this spring is at running back.
The arrivals of T.J. Pledger, a transfer from Oklahoma, and Chris Curry, a transfer from Louisiana State, have been well publicized while a three-star recruit from Florida, Ricky Parks, will join the Utes this summer.
But overlooked somewhat is 5-foot-11, 200-pound redshirt freshman Micah Bernard, who is actually No. 1 on the depth chart this spring. Bernard has been in the program since 2019, arriving on campus when he was just 17 years old.
Bernard, a three-star recruit, rushed for 2,411 yards during his career at Gahr High School in Cerritos, California. He hails from Long Beach.
After redshirting at Utah in ’19, Bernard played in five games last season, rushing 15 times for 76 yards and catching four passes for 25 yards.
So what puts Bernard at the top of the depth chart, ahead of Pledger and Curry at this point?
“First of all, his familiarity with the scheme. He’s been in (offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s) scheme going on three years now. He’s got a great command of it. He makes very few mistakes,” coach Kyle Whittingham said Friday. “The learning curve for him is nonexistent this spring, just go out and perform. Whereas the other two are learning the offense and they’re doing a very nice job of that. But they’re still a little bit of a learning curve. At times, there’s a little bit of hesitation and uncertainty. That affects performance. The biggest thing that Micah has going for him is the knowledge of the scheme.”
Besides that, “he’s tremendous physically. He’s got it all. He’s fast — he’s probably a 4.4 kid,” Whittingham added. “He’s 200 pounds and he has great hands out of the backfield. He’s tough and really smooth. You didn’t really see Micah last year for obvious reasons. But he’s really made a big jump from last spring to this spring. Now it’s his time to shine.”
Whittingham noted the progress Bernard has made since that 2019 season.
“He’s come a long way since he came into the program. He’s gotten bigger and stronger,” Whittingham said. “He’s a smart kid.”
What has Bernard improved on most?
“He’s just doing everything better. He’s 10 pounds heavier, which has really helped him. It’s tough to play running back in the Pac-12 at 190 pounds, which is what he was last year,” Whittingham said after Friday’s scrimmage. “So he’s gotten bigger and stronger. He seems to have really had the light switch come on and is cutting loose. He’s just letting it all hang out and letting it rip and making plays. He’s been — I don’t want to say a pleasant surprise — but he’s reacting and performing how we hoped he would.”
Bernard said his two seasons at Utah have been a learning process. He’s spent time behind several running backs and picking up the offense.
“I came in super young and I didn’t know what I needed to do yet because I was still young and I wasn’t mature enough,” Bernard said.
But Bernard is improving by the day.
“He’s exponentially grown. He’s grown as a man. He’s grown as a football player. He’s become mature. He was 17 years old when he came here. He was young,” said running backs coach Kiel McDonald. “He graduated a year before he was supposed to. It’s a maturation process. To see how where he was when he first got here to where he is now, running strong and physically, it’s been good to see. He’s got a lot in the tank. He knows exactly what he needs to do so I’m fired up to see where he goes … He’s making strides. He’s getting better in all facets of the game.”
Bernard said he’s learned from Pledger and Curry and, at the same time, he has been able to help them get acclimated to the program.
After last season, McDonald knew that building the depth and talent back at the running back position was a priority.
“I told Micah we were going to bring in some guys and rebuild the room,” he said. “We had one guy on scholarship on campus. I think he understood that part of it.”
Bernard wasn’t afraid of having competition and he had no thoughts of entering the transfer portal.
“I picked this place for a reason. I wanted to get away from home and I wanted to do a lot of things,” he said. “My main goal is to get to the League and produce here. Why would I leave? There was no reason to do any of that.”
Last year, Utah was trying to fill the void left by the school’s all-time leading rusher, Zack Moss.
The depth chart in 2020 featured Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore, Ty Jordan and Bernard.
As it turned out, Jordan emerged as a star on his way to earning All-Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors before he died tragically last December. Brumfield and Wilmore have left the program.
Going into the 2021 season, there’s another fierce competition at running back.
“As of now, it’s a very similar situation as last year going into fall camp,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got three guys and we’ll add Parks in the summer. That could change. We still have practices left this spring. Things could happen. People could work their way up or down the depth chart.”
Whittingham likes the skill set of the three running backs competing this spring.
“They all three have excellent hands and run good routes. They’re very capable,” he said. “These guys are complete backs as far as running the football, catching it out of the backfield and picking up blitzes. They can do all three of those things.”
Leading the way right now is Bernard, who is making a case to be Utah’s No. 1 running back next fall.