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Have the Utes finally found their man at running back?

Oklahoma transfer T.J. Pledger rushed 10 times for 117 yards and a touchdown in win over Washington State — and just as important, he didn’t put the pigskin on the ground

Utah running back T.J. Pledger scores against Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 25, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
Utah running back T.J. Pledger hits pay dirt during game against Washington State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

The Utes have been searching for a reliable, every-down back who can provide consistent production — and hold on to the football.

Has Utah found its man in junior T.J. Pledger?

In the Utes’ 24-13 victory over Washington State, the Oklahoma transfer rushed 10 times for 117 yards and a touchdown. He broke off a 59-yard run early in the fourth quarter.

And that TD, a 20-yarder with 4:43 left in the game, was a huge one. Pledger’s TD put Utah ahead for good in a contest that saw the offense fumble the ball seven times, losing three of them.

Perhaps his most important statistic was that he didn’t fumble.

“Our line did a great job opening up a hole,” Pledger said of the touchdown. “They did a great job and I’m very proud of them.”

“T.J. came in and really did a nice job,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “His run of 60 was a big one. He was very consistent.”

For quarterback Cam Rising, who made his first start of the season, watching Pledger get free and streak into the end zone was a beautiful sight.

“I love giving the ball to (Pledger). He’s a playmaker,” Rising said. “He showed it right there. I love seeing that, especially when he hit that crease. It’s a great thing to see.”

Going into the game, Pledger had run the ball just six times for 11 yards. On the Utes’ first offensive series of the season, against Weber State on Sept. 2, Pledger dropped what appeared to be a sure touchdown and Utah had to settle for a field goal.

The 5-foot-9, 196-pound native of Pacoima, California, had to learn patience as he’s waited for another opportunity to shine.

“I’ve been through a lot in college. One thing that I know is, you’ve got to stay ready,” Pledger said. “It’s being patient and understanding that my time will come one day. It’s about taking advantage of your opportunities.”

Much of Pledger’s motivation comes from being a father to a young daughter, who lives in Oklahoma.

During fall camp, when he was asked what drives him, Pledger said, “My family. My background. My daughter is my biggest motivation right now. Waking up every day thinking about her and being able to come out here and play the game I love.”

Then he added, “I miss her.”

But last Saturday, his daughter was in attendance at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Afterward, he expressed his gratitude for all that he’s been through and he acknowledged the emotions he was feeling.

“It was great. After the game, I was holding my daughter and I had some tears in my eyes just because it’s not easy,” Pledger said. “College football is not easy. You go through ups and downs. I feel like the ones that are able to put their best foot forward every day are the ones that end up being successful. It meant a lot to me. I’m thankful for my coaches for always believing in me and my teammates.”

Utah running backs coach Kiel McDonald knows that Pledger is a versatile back.

“Not only can he catch the ball, but he breaks a lot of tackles and he’s very elusive,” McDonald said. “We thought that with his technique and skill set, he could come into this offensive and be very, very productive.”

Pledger signed with Utah after transferring from Oklahoma last winter. He was a four-star prospect at IMG Academy in Florida before signing with the Sooners. But he grew up in Pacoima, outside of Los Angeles.

The Utes’ next game will be at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans, on Oct. 9 (6 p.m. MDT, Fox).

One reason why Pledger pledged to the Utes was because of the school’s running back tradition after having produced stars like Devin Booker, Zack Moss and Ty Jordan.

“I wanted to come be a part of that,” he said.

Pledger was an accomplished running back at Oklahoma with big-game experience.

Last season, he put up a career day with 22 carries and 131 yards and two touchdowns in the Sooners’ 53-45 win over rival Texas in four overtimes in the Red River Showdown.

Now, he’s looking to make his mark as a Ute.

“It means everything. Winding down my college career, being able to come back to this side of the coast and play in front of family and new fans means a lot to me,” Pledger said earlier this year. “I haven’t played a lot of people that I know because I’ve been in the Big 12. But coming back to the West Coast and being able to play familiar faces is going to be a lot of fun.”