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Commentary: Utah running backs a key influence on Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 5:03 p.m. MDT

Utah's Kelvin York stretches out for a ball as the University of Utah holds football practice Tuesday, March 26, 2013, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) Utah's Kelvin York stretches out for a ball as the University of Utah holds football practice Tuesday, March 26, 2013, at Rice-Eccles Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

A favorite media story about University of Utah football for months has been the "co-offensive coordinator” duties of Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson. Coach Kyle Whittingham hired Erickson, a former Pac-12 and NFL coach, in February.

If that’s indeed the case, it makes sense. A Sugar Bowl quarterback, Johnson in February 2012 became perhaps the youngest offensive coordinator in Football Bowl Subdivision history — just two weeks before his 25th birthday. Then, the Utes’ offense the past season ranked just 105th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.

But whether one is 66 and experienced (as Erickson is) or 26 and inexperienced (as Johnson is), the Utes’ offense may not improve much if it can't locate and utilize effective running backs in place of John White IV, arguably the most effective running back pound-for-pound (and inch-for-inch) in modern Utah football history.

Chase Maires, left, reaches to tackle James Poole during University of Utah football practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Chase Maires, left, reaches to tackle James Poole during University of Utah football practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

That means a lot considering who has come by the hill since the mid-1990s: Jamal Anderson, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala, Mike Anderson, Dameon Hunter, Adam Tate, Brandon Warfield, Marty Johnson, Darrell Mack, Matt Asiata and Eddie Wide. Whew. Utah's running back tradition in less than 20 years resembles a form of dominance in the same ballpark as BYU’s famed “Quarterback U” from the late 1970s to early ’90s.

Last season, the 5-foot-8, 188-pound White became the first Ute to rush for back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and now plays for the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League. Records and comparative history considered, little wonder the coaching trio was unclear about the team’s depth at running back to start spring ball.

They now consider that problem solved after several strong performances. Senior Kelvin York has been the projected starter since the end of last season’s disappointing 5-7 campaign. High hopes abound for senior Karl Williams; he made a name for himself during camp. With strong efforts from sophomore James “Bubba” Poole and junior Lucky Radley in spring camp, Erickson and Johnson may call on the ball carriers more often than was expected when last season began.

Karl Williams, left, drives past Keith McGill during the Red-White Game at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News) Karl Williams, left, drives past Keith McGill during the Red-White Game at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Whittingham has said that all four may see playing time in a “running back by committee” approach, perhaps in similar form to how Asiata and Wide shared carries. (Of course, the staff would love to see the current crew resemble the two NFL players.)

Plenty of backs follow the "fantastic four" — seven, even: seniors Soni Kinikini and Devontae Booker, sophomores Jarrell Oliver and Andrew Fletcher and freshmen Dre’Vian Young, Troy McCormick and Marcus Williams.

If not in numbers, Utah's pool of backs could have been deeper had Harvey Langi not joined highly recruited teammate Chase Hansen in serving an LDS mission. Also, Thretton Palamo remains on the defensive line after moving there from running back last spring — a star international rugby career preceding that as the bigger switch of the two.

Utah Utes running back Lucky Radley (44) runs during practice and the opening day of spring football in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes running back Lucky Radley (44) runs during practice and the opening day of spring football in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Here's a look at this year's Utah running back group.

Rhett Wilkinson is a project manager for UtahPolicy.com and hails the true-blooded Aggies from Utah. The co-founder of magazine Aggie BluePrint.com, he's been an intern for the Deseret News and other publications. rhett.wilkinson@usu.edu | @wilklogan

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