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. firstname.lastname@example.org | @wilklogan
Most assumed York would inherit the starting running back job left vacant by White. Despite strong performances from Williams, Poole and Radley in York’s frequent absence from spring ball, the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Fullerton College (Calif.) transfer should still be the first among them to take a carry this season.
York is the antithesis of scatback White. He is a smashmouth player, not just in style but in durability. Though turf toe limited him in spring ball, he has proven himself in real-time situations. In the five games last season where he got five-plus carries, he averaged a respectable 4.8 yards per rush. He was the lone highlight of an embarrassing September defeat at Arizona State, when he gained 86 yards on 13 carries. Injuries kept him out of the Utes’ first three November contests before he got 10 carries in the season-ending win over Colorado.
He maintained his value as the top ground option in the April 20 Red-White Game, when he had seven carries for 35 yards.
In 2010, he rushed for 1,478 yards and 17 touchdowns for Fullerton. His MVP-performance in that year's California Community College Athletic Association's Golden Empire Bowl garnered him offers from Washington, Ole Miss and even Oregon.
While York was reliable in the spring finale, Williams was better, rushing 10 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns to open up opportunities for projected starting quarterback Travis Wilson.
The 243-pound native of Layton, Utah, came to campus in 2010 as a fullback after playing seven games as a true freshman for Southern Utah University. He was given a scholarship in February after losing weight and earning compliments from coaches — including the veteran Erickson — for his ball security and good hands out of the backfield. Whittingham said he’s never seen Williams lose yards. Coaches label him a “football player."
After being asked last year to gain weight as a fullback, he was asked to do the opposite this year in order to push York for the starting tailback job. Mike Grant of KSL wrote that coaches smile when they talk about him, expressing satisfaction that Williams does whatever they ask of him. While he is reportedly also effective at running between the tackles or on the edges, Williams isn’t as fast as the other three.
Poole might be the most unknown of the four top running backs because he’s the youngest in the program. Poole split first-team reps in the spring with Radley and Williams. Poole has displayed a downfield style similar to York but is much bigger than Radley — with whom he will probably compete for third-string carries — at 6-foot, 200 pounds.
In order to utilize Poole more, Erickson and Johnson could use the Las Vegas native as a receiver in some of Erickson’s spread formations, giving him a speed advantage over many linebackers.
This season, Radley should far exceed the 15 career carries he has gained in his first two years in Salt Lake City since graduating from Taft High School (Inglewood, Calif.). Radley got more practice reps than Poole.
If fans want to see an imitation of White, they should call Radley’s name. Like White, he is 5-foot-8 but strong enough to run between tackles against at least the lower half of the Pac-12. In order to be utilized more, he could join Poole in some formations as a wideout. Because of Erickson’s emphasis on the spread, it’s almost a certainty. Perhaps Poole and/or Radley could even find themselves practicing as a receiver in August.
Oliver was listed in the papers last year as high as second on the depth chart, just below White with York. The 5-foot-8, 213-pound sophomore even started in last year’s memorable contest against BYU. But reports have been quiet since he broke his foot with two games remaining last season. Returning from the injury, he missed spring ball and may not play in the fall, either.
Oliver gained 23 yards on four carries last season after redshirting in 2011. He was a first-team all-district player as a junior and senior at Dulles High School (Texas).
Booker, a junior college transfer from American River College (Calif.) signed with Washington State out of high school in 2009 before losing his scholarship for being late to take his entrance exams. Though the 5-foot-11, 205-pound junior has been outside the Football Bowl Subdivision since showing such level of talent in high school, he’s not been without confidence — but he may have a tough time reaching his goals.
He told the American River Current last year he wants to win the Heisman in his junior year in the Pac-12 — this season if he plays — and fulfill a five-year plan of being an NFL player.
Best wishes to a guy who begins August camp as a fifth-stringer at best. At least he has a great football name — and hey, former Utah receiver Brent Casteel once said “he was ready for the Heisman” before he ever played a game for the Utes. He did make the NFL.
Booker was a first-team all-Valley Conference performer for American River College.
As the Deseret News’ Amy Donaldson reported, Kinikini did not intend to play college football when he graduated from Skyline High School in Salt Lake City in 2008. Instead, he played for a year for the famous Highland Rugby team featured in Ryan Little’s "Forever Strong" film. But then his dad stepped in — at least in encouragement to gain an education. Kinikini then walked on at Snow College with the intention of pursuing a criminal justice degree. While he was awarded a position among hundreds of hopefuls, he was, after all, an all-state player at Skyline.
It took no act of thievery for the 5-foot-11, 250-pound native of Sandy, Utah, to garner offers from multiple FBS schools. He played on two consecutive Top of the Mountains bowls. His second walk-on came last fall, when he redshirted. He has one season to reflect the magic he’s previously wrought in a high-profile college football setting: his Badgers blew out Eastern Arizona in the 2011 bowl.
Here’s a transfer you don’t hear about every day: to Utah from Valparaiso. A multi-sport athlete, Fletcher was an academic All-American in lacrosse at Centennial High School.
As for football, Fletcher was a second-team all-conference tight end at Centennial. By focusing on football rather than his other sport, the 5-foot-11, 196-pound back probably is already more famous than his brother Eric, who played lacrosse for the Idaho Vandals.
While questions remain as to whether the trio will actually play — will they all redshirt, perhaps? — there’s little question as to who is the fastest.
Young was the Texas 5A 400 meter champion, and his 46.80 time was the fourth-best in the nation by a prep athlete in 2013. Perhaps his raw speed will give him an edge over McCormick and Williams to start fall camp.
Then again, Williams beat nearly 1,300 other recruits in April 2012 by recording the highest score at the Nike Football SPARQ Combine in Long Beach, Calif., where he had the top 40-yard dash time (4.43 seconds).
Williams, an All-Northwest League co-offensive MVP for Durango High School (Las Vegas), also beat those same 1,300 recruits with the top vertical jump (39.4 inches). He needed it given that he had played just three games during his junior season after transferring to Durango from Bishop Gorman, according to the Las Vegas Sun.
Young was a three-star recruit out of Nimitz High School (Houston) and a Houston Chronicle Top 100 Texas recruit who was named first-team all-district as a senior and second-team as a junior.
McCormick was also a three-star recruit from the Houston area, which helped less than one might expect. He only got an offer from Duke University — the only FBS school beside Utah to offer him a scholarship — before the Utes came calling. McCormick told 247sports.com he was surprised Utah safeties coach and recruiter Morgan Scalley offered him a scholarship.
McCormick was a 19-5A all-district co-offensive MVP and first-team running back last season and a second-team honoree in 2011.
Williams doesn’t just join Poole as a Las Vegas native on the Utes’ roster. Offensive linemen Jeremiah Poutasi and Jeremiah Tofaeono are also from Sin City. This group joins an impressive list of Utes from Las Vegas-area schools: linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (Valley High), who helped the Utes go undefeated in 2008 and is currently with the Pittsburgh Steelers; Eddie Wide (Cimarron-Memorial High), who finished his career with more than 2,000 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns; and wide receiver DeVonte Christopher (Canyon Springs), who signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins following this year’s NFL draft.