For the past two seasons, Utah redshirt freshman Ja’Quinden Jackson has been a backup quarterback.

But after Chris Curry sustained a season-ending injury, and coaches decided that Tavion Thomas wouldn’t play in the first half against Arizona State last weekend, Jackson was told there would be a big change in his role.

“I know that I was going to be in some type of rotation and they’d put me on the field. I definitely said yes right on the spot. — Utah running back Ja’Quinden<strong> </strong>Jackson when asked about moving to running back

Jackson was assigned to be an “emergency” running back and participated in a couple of practices last week at that position. He hadn’t played running back since his sophomore year of high school. 

“I took a couple of reps at running back and they liked what they saw and we went from there,” Jackson said. 

Against the Sun Devils, the 6-foot-2, 227-pounder from Dallas carried the ball nine times for 31 yards and scored a two-yard touchdown in the second quarter. 

For Jackson, just getting back on the field was a thrill.

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“I found my joy again. I’ll leave it at that,” he said. “I had fun just being out there playing again. I found my joy again. I’m loving it. … I know that I was going to be in some type of rotation and they’d put me on the field. I definitely said yes right on the spot.”

And that’s how the Utes’ third-string QB became a running back again. 

Running backs coach Quinton Ganther was pleased by Jackson’s response to the change. 

“How it works is, the group is the group and the best thing about the group is the group,” he said. “With JJ, he was able to help us as a team. As a team, when we were down, and we needed someone to step up, he answered the call.”

Jackson will remain at running back for the remainder of the season. Coach Kyle Whittingham said it will be reevaluated during the offseason. 

Utah has experienced some upheaval at that position due to Curry’s injury and Thomas’ issues. Freshman Jaylon Glover started at running back last Saturday and he rushed 13 times for 48 yards. 

“Jaylon Glover played good football on Saturday as well. He had some good carries,” Whittingham said. “It’s Tavion, Jaylon, Ja’Quinden and Micah (Bernard). Those are the top four. Charlie Vincent is the fifth guy right now. We still feel really good about that room. Losing Chris was a blow. But we have plenty of talent.”

Ganther said Glover’s performance was “good to see. … He’s a young man that came in and he’s worked hard since he’s been here. I’m happy to see him carry the torch right there and lead us in a time that we needed it.”

How much more can Glover give the offense?

“I don’t know how much is left,” Ganther said. “But I’m going to milk him for everything that’s in him. That’s what I’m going to do.”

As for Thomas, Ganther said: “I’d like to see Tavion be Tavion. That’s what I would like to see.”

In the second half at ASU, Thomas ran 11 times for 60 yards.

What will it take for Thomas to be Utah’s featured back again? 

“Consistency, on and off the field, and accountability, on and off the field,” Whittingham said. 

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Ganther is confident in what Jackson can contribute moving forward, despite the switch of positions. 

“The kid is already naturally gifted. He just has to learn the little nuances of the position,” he said. “I think in a few weeks when he learns the nuances, I mean, he only had two days of practice (last week). I congratulate him for taking it seriously and with two days of work. That’s hard to do, to be thrown into the fire with two days of work. I appreciate him for the work that he’s put in.”

Ganther liked Jackson’s “physicality” against ASU. 

“The kid came in and he ran hard,” Ganther said. “I love the passion that he plays with. Passion and energy is always a plus in this room.”

Ganther said Jackson’s biggest obstacle will be making the transition from QB to RB. 

“The challenge is getting out of that quarterback mindset and getting into a running back mindset. Even with him playing that position in high school, he didn’t look at it in the lens guys see it from. He’s starting to understand it,” he said. “One of the biggest things about the position is the protection. He understood protection from an offensive line point of view and the quarterback point of view. But he didn’t really understand where the running backs go.

“That’s going to be the biggest challenge right there — getting the footwork and everything down pat and relearning to taking a handoff. He’s used to giving them, not taking them. We have to get all that together as well.”

Whittingham said Jackson is still learning “the footwork and nuances of the running back position. 

The Red team’s Ja’Quinden Jackson hands off to Jaylon Glover during the University of Utah’s Red and White Game at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 23, 2022. Jackson is now on the receiving end of handoffs for the Utes. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“As a quarterback, he obviously knows the offense inside and out. Specific to the running back position, he’s got to have all the details as far as the footwork and blitz pickups,” Whittingham said. “That’s what he’s going to work on. He had 2 ½ days of practice last week. … We expect him to take a step forward this week and as the weeks progress, he’ll get better and better.”

The fact that Jackson has played running back in the past makes the coaching staff feel good about switching Jackson’s positions. 

“If he didn’t have the fairly extensive running back background, that would be a different story,” Whittingham said. “But he does have a lot of experience as a running back. It’s been a few years but he has that experience in the position and the workload as a full-time starter at that position. He can certainly draw upon that.”

Whittingham called Jackson “a natural” as a running back. “He’s explosive. He’s a big back. He’s fast and he’s got really good vision. Hopefully the rest of the season, he’s a viable option.”

Jackson said playing running back is “really natural to me. It’s nothing I haven’t done before.”

In fact, he said, his quarterback experience will help him see the field in a way that’s different than most running backs.

“It’s a big advantage. A huge advantage,” Jackson said. “As a quarterback moving to running back, there’s a lot of stuff that running backs don’t see that I see.”

“It’s always an advantage if you can see the game through a different lens and bring it to the group,” Ganther said.

Now that Jackson has found his “joy” again, he’s focused on learned the nuances of the running back position, “listening to Coach Q” and helping the Utah offense reach its potential. 

The way Ganther sees it, his role in helping the running backs is “to build confidence in these guys. If their confidence is broken, it’s going to show. I have to keep building them up. … I’m going to build these guys up through the roof and make them feel like everyone should be the starter. I want them all fighting for touches. If you’re comfortable with not getting touches, I don’t like you very much.”

It appears Ganther has a running backs room full of players, like Jackson, that want to get touches. 

“The strength of the group is the group,” Ganther said. “We can’t do it without each other.” 


Utes on the air

Oregon State (3-1, 0-1) at No. 12 Utah (3-1, 1-0) 

Saturday, noon MDT

Rice-Eccles Stadium 

TV: Pac-12 Network 

Radio: ESPN 700