With a running backs room at Utah that includes Oklahoma transfer T.J. Pledger and LSU transfer Chris Curry, many forgot about redshirt freshman Micah Bernard.
Or they figured he may not be much of a factor this season.
But the Utes coaching staff knew all along what it had in Bernard, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound native of Long Beach, California.
Bernard may have been overlooked by those outside the program. But not inside it.
Back in early April, coach Kyle Whittingham said Bernard stood atop Utah’s depth chart at running back. That statement took many by surprise. But Whittingham saw what Bernard could bring to the offense.
“He’s tremendous physically. He’s got it all. He’s fast — he’s probably a 4.4 kid,” Whittingham said at the time. “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.”
Bernard certainly shined in the Utes’ 26-17 loss at BYU last Saturday. He rushed 12 times for 146 yards and scored on a 22-yard fourth-quarter touchdown that saw him power through Cougar defenders and plunge into the end zone. It was the perfect time for him to score his first career TD at Utah.
So far this season, Bernard has rushed 18 times for a team-high 181 yards. He’s also caught a team-high seven passes for 59 yards.
“I’m a threat out of the backfield. I thrive on that,” Bernard said of his receiving skills. “It’s a big blessing for me to have the hands that I have. I try to use it. I love how the coaches try to incorporate me into all that. It’s a good feeling.”
Not only has Bernard competed with Pledger and Curry, but the running backs position became even more crowded, and competitive, when Tavion Thomas transferred to Utah last spring.
But two games into the season, and going into the San Diego State game Saturday (5 p.m. MST, CBSSN), Bernard appears to be the Utes’ No. 1 ball carrier — an every down back.
“He definitely was this weekend for sure. He can do it all. He can catch, he can block,” said running backs coach Kiel McDonald. “A lot of guys in this program can do those things. He has really grown into somebody that can be a three-down back for us.”
How many carries can Bernard handle per game?
“Twenty-plus. He has the frame to be able to do so, he has the style of play to do so,” McDonald said. “He’s elusive and he can run for power. He’s kind of slippery in some ways. He can be a 20-plus back. … He’s powerful. He has a multitude of different tools that he can go to throughout the course of a game.”
Bernard’s rise up the depth chart is remarkable, considering where he started.
He arrived on campus as a 17-year-old and a three-star recruit out of Gahr High, where he rushed for 2,411 yards.
“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,” he said.
What he saw around him in the locker room was “grown men,” Bernard said, including some teammates that were 24, 25 years old. But he adjusted.
“Being around this team and this family,” he said, “I got acclimated to it pretty good.”
Bernard redshirted in 2019. The depth chart in 2020 featured Devin Brumfield, Jordan Wilmore, Ty Jordan and Bernard.
Going into 2020, Utah was trying to fill the void left by the school’s all-time leading rusher, Zack Moss. In 2020, Bernard played in five games, rushing 15 times for 76 yards and catching four passes for 25 yards.
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. Before the season ended, Brumfield and Wilmore decided to leave the program.
After last season, McDonald knew that building 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,” McDonald 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 didn’t consider 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 (NFL) and produce here. Why would I leave? There was no reason to do any of that.”
During that time, Bernard showed patience and persevered.
“I’ve been wanting to get back to my old self. I felt like I’m getting there,” he said. “I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got to keep it up.”
What does looking like his “old self” look like exactly?
“Just what I did Saturday night. I’ve done a lot of that in high school,” he said. “I’ve been trying to change it over to college. I did it Saturday night so I’m trying to get back to it.”
Whittingham noticed during the spring that Bernard had improved and had changed his body, adding 10 pounds to his frame.
“So he’s gotten bigger and stronger. He seems to have really had the light switch come on and is cutting loose,” Whittingham said in April. “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 proved Whittingham right on Saturday.
“Incredibly proud of Micah. He’s grown up right before our eyes. When he got here, he was a very young senior in high school. He was only 16 or 17,” the coach said Monday. “He has matured and developed a toughness and a consistency about him that is admirable.
“It’s a credit to him and it’s a credit to Kiel McDonald, his position coach. But he has stayed the course. He’s developed at a good pace and now he’s reaping those rewards for his work ethic.”
“I think he became mentally tougher and physically tougher. This program will do that to you,” McDonald said. “He’s learned the game and he’s really developed on and off the field. He’s growing into being a man. He’s truly become a tougher person.”
As fate would have it, this week, Bernard will play close to his hometown when the Utes travel to Carson, California, to take on SDSU.
“I’ve got a lot of family coming. I’ve got to put it on for them,” he said. “My family called me Sunday and we chopped it up about the game. It will be cool to have them there and ball out in front of them.”
While he’s been overlooked by many, Saturday will be another opportunity for Micah Bernard to show everyone watching what he can do. And how much he’s progressed since he arrived at Utah as a 17-year-old.