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Will a clear starter emerge? Utes have a stable of quality backs battling for the job

The Utes added a trio of transfers — T.J. Pledger, Chris Curry and Tavion Thomas — all of whom are competing for the starting job, along with returning running back Micah Bernard

Utah Utes running back Chris Curry runs during the spring game in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021.
Utah Utes running back Chris Curry carries the ball during spring scrimmage at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Curry is one of three backs who transferred into the program during the offseason.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Utah’s running backs room looks a lot different now than it did a year ago.

Entering the 2020 season, the Utes were trying to fill the massive void left by Zach Moss, the program’s all-time leading rusher. Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore were placed at the top of the depth chart, ahead of Ty Jordan and Micah Bernard.

As it turned out, Jordan emerged as a dynamic running back during his debut against USC and went on to earn Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors.

During the season, both Brumfield and Wilmore chose to enter the transfer portal. Jordan died tragically on Christmas.

Since then, the running back position has been rebuilt.

The Utes have added a trio of transfers — T.J. Pledger (Oklahoma), Chris Curry (LSU) and Tavion Thomas (Cincinnati/Independence Community College) — who are all competing for the starting job, along with Bernard.

The competition is fierce and could extend past fall camp and into the season.

“We should get a good enough gauge to see where things are, but you never know for sure until you get into a game situation,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “Unless it’s absolutely clear-cut before the first game, you may see the carries spread equally among the top guys early on and see who separates themselves.”

Will one of those running backs emerge? Or will Utah rely on its depth and versatility?

Running backs coach Kiel McDonald would like to use multiple backs, but he’s waiting to see if an every-down back breaks away from the rest.

“I just want to win, whatever that takes, if it’s three guys or two guys. I think staying fresh would be great. But we’ve had Ty Jordan and Zach Moss and Devontae (Booker),” he said. “We’ve had bell cow backs here for years and years and years. We might have that guy. I would like to be two-backs if we could. But if there’s a guy that has truly separated himself, we’re going to go with that guy.”

In terms of size, the Utes have a good mix at running back — Pledger (5-foot-9), Curry (5-foot-11), Thomas (6-foot-2) and Bernard (6-foot-0).

How does McDonald describe his group?

“We’ve got big, tall and small. The biggest thing we want to get done here is to make sure that they’re competing — effort, finish, technique,” he said. “Everything else is going to finish from there. The scheme is the scheme. They’ll pick it up eventually. But they’ve got to make sure that they’re busting it from Point A to Point B.”

Utah running back T.J. Pledger looks for yardage during the first day of fall camp Aug. 4, 2021, at the University of Utah. Pledger is among a group of three backs who transferred into the program during the offseason.
University of Utah Athletics

Of the newcomers, Pledger and Curry participated in spring drills, while Thomas joined the program in June.

Thomas entered fall camp weighing 240 and he quickly lost nine pounds. Whittingham would like to see him lose five more.

McDonald likes Thomas’ size and mobility.

“He’s 230 (pounds), that’s what he brings. He’s a bigger back but sweet feet. He’s very light on his feet; very fast,” McDonald said. “He’s elusive. He has experience at Cincinnati. He’s more elusive and more burst than what people might think. He’s very good.”

Pledger and Curry have played in big games during their careers, and McDonald is impressed with their maturity.

“They’ve played in big games — Sugar Bowls, Fiesta Bowls, won national titles. They’ve been to the top of the mountain,” McDonald said. “There’s nothing that those guys don’t know. They come in and they talk to the young guys and don’t have that much experience and show them, ‘Hey, this is how we get things done.’ It’s been a breath of fresh air to have those types of guys in the room.”

Whittingham ranked the most important attributes that he’s looking for in a running back.

“It’s all important but if you had to rank it, taking care of the football is No. 1. All great backs have the same thing in common — when there’s nothing there, they can make three yards,” he said. “You’ve got to make something out of nothing. That’s critical that they are able to do that. Pass (protection) and catching the ball out of the backfield are obviously important, too.”

The Utes’ first scrimmage of fall camp is scheduled for Saturday. McDonald and the other coaches will be monitoring the running backs’ performances closely, of course.

How long will this competition last?

“It depends on when someone wants to pull ahead. That’s their choice,” McDonald said. “We’re going to figure that out as fast as we possibly can. But if it goes into the season, it goes into the season. Whatever it takes to win. But if somebody pulls (ahead) and takes the lead, we’re going to run with that guy.”