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

Published: Sunday, July 14 2013 10:27 p.m. MDT

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.

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.

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.

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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Santa Monica, CA

Wow! Thretton Palamo was a rugby player, huh? I never knew that. You would think that somebody would have mentioned it before. I wonder if the coaches feel that, with hard work, his rugby skills might not translate into football success? Just a thought.

Naval Vet
Philadelphia, PA

I hope Jarrell Oliver (and his foot) will be ready in the Fall. He's got a TON of potential. York is solid, and [Karl] Williams had an outstanding Spring, but in order for us to open up the passing game, we're going to need a dominant running game. Travis Wilson should be much improved under Center over last year, but he's still a little light on the experience, so the RBs are going to have to take as much pressure off him as possible.

Chris B
Salt Lake City, UT

It's going to be a great season I know it.


Oceanside, CA

Having a deeper, and hopefully, a better Offensive line will make a difference this year.

Naval Vet
Philadelphia, PA


There were multiple articles written on Palamo's transition from All-American Rugby player to FBS Football player last season, so it's not news anymore. Palamo was initially tried out at RB/FB, but subsequently shifted over to the Defensive side of the ball as a hybrid LB/DE. Nevertheless, his playing time was very limited.

Broom Hockey Champ
Scottsdale, AZ

York = injury-prone; won't play more than 5 games
Williams = walk-on and slow is a nice combo for success
Radley = not really that lucky
Poole = cooler nickname than any plays he'll make on the field

Who are the rest of these guys? Seems like even the DNews has trouble distinguishing between them.

Cottonwood Heights, UT

You will definitely know their names after the game at the Y. Broom hockey wizard


@Broom Hockey Champ,

I can agree with you on a few points. York is injury prone and I don't see him playing in more than half the games this season. Secondly the DNews does seem to be having trouble distinguishing players, but it's not like the local media is renowned for their acumen in the college scene. I seem to remember JWIV not distinguishing himself before his first season on the hill either, however.

Mesa, AZ


"I seem to remember JWIV not distinguishing himself before his first season on the hill either, however."

I assure you, after the whooping JWIV put on 2-Star byu in his lone appearance against them, to the tune of 54-10/174 yds/3 TDs, they'll most certainly never forget him, guaranteed!

Anybody who followed our recent Spring camp closely knows we're straight loaded at RB and the never before seen pure speed we have incoming this Summer merely adds to it. Young, alone, ran the 3rd or 4th fastest 200-Meters in the nation this last Spring! We've never had this amount of speed on our team, ever!

Mesa, AZ

I'll add that it'll be interesting to see the impact of Coach DE involving our stable of RBs w/in our passing game, as well. Our O-Line is large and powerful, not to mention deep/healthy, and is built to dominantly run-block, but involving our RBs w/in our passing game will take pressure off of them as they develop their pass-blocking abilities, in compliment!

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