SALT LAKE CITY — The first thing we need to get clear is the first name. Is it James or Bubba?
During last week’s game against Oregon State, the name heard over the PA system more than any other was "James Poole," who carried the ball 25 times and caught seven passes for Utah in its disappointing overtime loss. Over and over, the announcer called out James and not Bubba, a nickname Poole's uncle bestowed on him as a baby and the name Ute coaches and teammates call the young running back.
Poole says he's fine with either James or Bubba, but when pushed he says, “Everyone calls me Bubba — I’m not sure even my mom knows my real name.’’
OK, so it’s Bubba.
One thing that is certain, Bubba Poole is quickly making a name for himself as Utah’s top running back as the Utes head into their rivalry game with BYU this Saturday.
Poole has supplanted Kelvin York as the Utes’ No. 1 running back, showing the toughness and elusiveness that he was known for when he came to Utah from Saddleback (Calif.) College after playing high school ball in Las Vegas.
Along with quarterback Travis Wilson, Poole sparked a Ute offense that rolled up 539 yards, including 527 in the last three quarters alone, last Saturday. The sophomore ran for 117 yards on 25 carries, but was just as effective as a receiver, leading the team with seven catches for 70 yards.
Poole is staying humble about all the attention he’s suddenly receiving. When asked about being Utah's No. 1 running back, he said, “I don’t know anything official. I was given that role for the (Oregon State) game and I want to be able to take that responsibility and fill that role.’’
He didn’t know that the Utah press release had him listed at the top of the depth chart and that a few minutes earlier, coach Kyle Whittingham had said, “He has unseated Kelvin right now and he’s the lead guy. Whittingham added: “Bubba is giving us very good production running the football and catching ... passes.’’
In high school, Poole was a first-team all-state player at Cimarron-Memorial High School, where he ran for 1,678 yards and 20 touchdowns. He was recruited by Utah, but had to go to junior college for a year.
“I wanted to come here out of high school and things didn’t quite work out and I had to go the juco route to get my grades right,’’ he said. “I stayed committed and really wanted to come here. Everything went as expected, but I have a lot further to go.’’
Prior to this season, the Utes planned to use both Poole and York, with York being the bigger, straight-ahead bulldozing runner and Poole getting his yards in space on the outside. However, Poole has proved he can fill both roles. Several times against Oregon State, he ran over defenders inside, scrapping for extra yards.
“I’m not as big and I try to make you miss, but I’m not scared of contact,’’ he says. “I don’t mind doing that at all. I’ll run through a guy or whatever.’’
Also, his ability to catch passes in the flat and turn them into big gains was valuable for the Utes last week.
“I feel like I bring a lot of versatility, being able to catch the ball out of the backfield,’’ Poole says. “I’m also a return guy and I feel like I can help my team by putting the offense in better field position.’’
Poole was the Utes’ top kick returner in the first two games, including having 82 yards in four punt returns against Weber State, but his days a returner may be over now that he is the primary running back.
Being from Las Vegas, Poole says he didn’t know much about the rivalry with BYU, but quickly learned last year.
“Being here last year as a redshirt, being suited up and going through the week of practice, it felt good just to be a part of it,’’ he said. “It’s huge. It’s a must-win game for us. Everybody says, ‘Beat BYU.’ I can just feel the energy from the fans and those who don’t even play. I love it.’’
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company