After missing 11 straight games in Utah’s 2023 season due to injury, Ute running back Micah Bernard returned to the field for the Las Vegas Bowl.

“I wanted to play in that game strictly to show everybody I’m back. I’m going to be able to do this,” Bernard said.

Bernard scored Utah’s only touchdown in a 14-7 loss to Northwestern, and as he crossed the goal line for the first time in 386 days, the emotion poured out of him, as tears started pouring out when he hugged fellow running back Charlie Vincent.

“I just felt everything release off my shoulders,” Bernard said.

That 2023 season came on the heels of a 2022 campaign that was also hampered by injuries for Bernard, who played through them and rushed for 533 yards and four touchdowns while adding 314 receiving yards and a score through the air.

Bernard said that prior to being on the sidelines for the majority of the 2023 season, he was “falling out of love” with football.

“I fell out of love with it. Just things not going your way. Things don’t always go your way, but I think I was just falling out of love with it on my body. My body’s getting beat up and that’s a big thing. Just so many injuries and knick-knacks, like, do I really want to continue?” Bernard said.

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Running backs coach Quinton Ganther, who played two seasons at Utah from 2004-2005 and had a five-season NFL career, understands what life is like for a running back as well as anyone.

“I kind of study these kids’ behaviors,” Ganther said, “so when I see something off, then I try to kind of dig a little deeper and he’ll share things. I knew he was getting close to walking away from football at one point.”

As Ganther has said previously, once fall camp begins, pretty much no player is at 100% health until the season is over.

“One thing I try to encourage these guys to do is, OK, it’s hard on me, too. I was there once where I was in the NFL and I wanted to walk away. I wanted to walk away, and the way I encourage them is, you got to understand, if you walk away from this game, this is a young man’s game. You’ll never be able to play it again,” Ganther said.

“... There’s going to come a time where we all get told that we can’t play, right? And so you don’t want to regret that.”

While recovering from his injury, Bernard rediscovered his joy for football, fighting to get back and play in the Las Vegas Bowl, even if no one would have blamed him for waiting until the 2024 season to suit up.

“To just be taken away for three months, you start to feel like, dang, this my whole life. All I know is football. … So it just made me appreciate what I’m doing so much more. It made me have a bigger drive for this year,” Bernard said.

That fight and desire has carried through to winter conditioning and spring camp, Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said.

“Yeah, the stuff that he’s went through, that’s no fun. There’s not a lot of joy in that, but he was so fired up to join us back for the bowl game and I saw that carry right over into his January, February work in the weight room,” Ludwig said.

“And that’s a voice of experience, a voice of leadership that we need on offense and Micah Bernard’s all in.”

A veteran leader on the team, Bernard has been with the program since 2019. He’s been willing to do whatever it takes for the team, as evidenced by playing cornerback in the 2022 Rose Bowl against star wide receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

“I’m feeling like Cov,” Bernard said, referring to former Utah wide receiver Britain Covey, whose time at Utah started in 2015 before he served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and extended through the 2021 season after he took a medical redshirt in 2019.

Take Bernard’s leadership qualities, plus his knowledge of the game, and Ganther thinks that Bernard is future coach material.

“Micah is super bright. He’s super bright. The moment is not ever too big for him. No matter who we’re playing, no matter what it is, he’s locked in no matter what, and he sees things before it happens,” Ganther said.

“He has a really good recall. If a play happens, he can tell you exactly what happened, why he did what he did. He knows the playbook inside and out. Just his knowledge of the game’s just spectacular, and it’s coach-like.”

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In a running back room that features Jaylon Glover, Mike Mitchell, John Randle Jr., Dijon Stanley and Anthony Woods, Bernard is perhaps the Utes’ most versatile running back.

He’s Utah’s best receiver out of the backfield, as he’s caught 69 passes for 620 yards and three touchdowns over his career, and he has great vision and explosiveness and is one of Utah’s best pass-blockers among the running backs.

He’s going to get his shot to be Utah’s RB1 and have the chance to get a lot of touches this season.

“Micah Bernard is looking good,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

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