Just like the quarterback position, the running backs room at Utah has a much different look and feel this spring.
The addition of two running back transfers from Power Five programs has made a big impact.
Returning is redshirt freshman Micah Bernard, who rushed for 76 yards on 15 carries and caught four passes for 25 yards in five games last season.
“We went to the portal and got a couple of really good backs in TJ Pledger from Oklahoma and Chris Curry from Louisiana State,” said coach Kyle Whittingham. “We were able to get some talent during the offseason at that position. It’s going to be a good battle in the spring and we’ll see how those guys separate themselves.”
Utah had a big void to fill at running back during the offseason.
Freshman Ty Jordan rushed for 597 yards and six touchdowns en route to earning Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2020. But a week after the season, Jordan tragically died in an accidental shooting during the Christmas break.
Toward the end of the season, the Utes lost a pair of running backs who chose to transfer — Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore — in part due to Jordan’s emergence.
Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig credited running backs coach Kiel McDonald for his diligent recruiting efforts to bring depth and experience to that position.
“What a great mix now. Coach McDonald did a phenomenal job recruiting via the portal,” Ludwig said. “With the influx of the two transfer running backs, that room’s got a completely new feel. I’m really excited to see how T.J. and Chris look with helmets and pads on as we move forward through spring ball. It’s a great combination of returning experienced players and some young dynamic players and an influx of transfers that should provide an immediate impact on the offensive group.”
While Friday was the Utes’ first day in pads, Whittingham said both Pledger and Curry are looking good.
“They’re adjusting phenomenally,” he said. “Their work ethic and their attitude has been outstanding. It’s been a really good fit so far.”
Whittingham said Pledger and Curry are two different types of running backs.
“Chris Curry is more of a pounder. He’s 5-foot-11, 215 (pounds) and more of a physical, inside runner. TJ is more of a scatback. He doesn’t have quite the size that Chris has. A little bit different style of running,” Whittingham said. “They both are very good in their blitz pickup and catching the ball out of the backfield.
“They both seem to be complete backs and be able to do everything we need them to. Then when you add Micah Bernard to that mix, we think we’ll come away with a pretty good position group at running back and a productive one.”
When it comes to the running game, if Ja’Quinden Jackson, a Texas transfer, doesn’t win the starting quarterback job, he could be a factor on the ground next fall.
Asked if Jackson could run plays as a wildcat QB, Whittingham said, “Absolutely. He’s got the skill set to play wildcat quarterback and about five or six other positions on the field. Right now, he is a quarterback and he’s doing a nice job for only having been here a short time.
“He certainly has the ability and the size, speed and quickness. … My guess he’s somewhere in the 4.5 or 4.6 range. He has a lot of skill set and potential a lot of different (positions). For right now, we’re not seeing anything but working with him as a standard quarterback and seeing what happens.”