Can Utes Get More Run Out of Their Running Game?

Returning Utah Utes starting running back Bubba Poole will have some work to do in fall camp to fend off the newcomers. - Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

JC transfer Devontae Booker will push returning starter Bubba Poole in fall camp. This position battle once fall camp begins may be every bit as exciting as the quarterback battle.

The Utah Utes gained 1,924 net yards rushing (160.33 yards per game) during the 2013 season, good for eighth in the Pac-12. This coming season, former Wyoming head coach Dave Christensen takes over as Utah's offensive coordinator, and former OC Dennis Erickson takes over coaching duties for the running backs. Both developments should be interesting visa vie any notable improvement in the running game. However, both coaches have the luxury of evaluating several talented backs with different sizes, speeds, and running styles, and Christensen will have several versatile players he can use situationally.

Bubba Poole - junior, 6-1, 197:

Poole is the returning starter from 2013, having played in all 12 games, starting in nine. Poole rushed for 607 yards on 149 carries (4.1 yards per carry average) and scored two touchdowns rushing last season, but leading the team in rushing yardage, Poole was third on the team, as departed running back Kelvin York tallied six touchdowns, and quarterback Travis Wilson notched five of his own. This season, Poole will be expected to carry more of the load, but he'll have to make some noise in fall camp to keep his starting position. In spring, Poole was pushed hard by JC transfer, Devontae Booker, but once more showcased his receiving ability out of the back field, recording a 71-yard play on a short pass in the annual Red-White Spring Game. Poole finished the 2013 season fifth on the team in receiving with 229 yards on 29 catches.

Devontae Booker - junior, 5-11, 209:

A couple of inches shorter than Poole, but 10 pounds heavier, Booker runs with speed, agility, power, and good field vision. Booker rushed for 109 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, and proved difficult for defenders to bring down. Booker also recorded the longest run of the spring game with a 22-yard scamper. Booker will be no less than the number two back heading into fall camp and has a good chance to overtake Poole for the number one slot before kickoff against Idaho State.

Troy McCormick - freshman (RS), 5-9, 172:

McCormick is the burner on the roster, having recorded a 4.38 40-yard dash. He rolled up 67 yards on 4 receptions in the spring game. This may be where the freshman from Texas excels, as an outside runner or receiver out of the backfield. In the right situational package, defenses may have to account for McCormick or risk giving up an explosive play. He shouldn't be an every down, between the tackles running back, but McCormick's most interesting storyline might be where he ends up on the depth chart after fall camp, as he'll face two talented, incoming freshmen who are both competing for playing time as well.

Tavaris Williams - freshman, 5-10, 180:

Williams chose Utah over Power 5 programs like Georgia, Oregon, Wisconsin, Duke, Florida, and Iowa State. As a senior, Williams racked up 1,819 yards rushing on 184 carries (a whopping 9.9 yards per carry and 202.1 yards per game average), scoring 20 touchdowns. Highlights of Williams (courtesy of Hudl) show a player who has breakaway speed (4.41 40 time) and a never-look-back attitude. Williams hits a hole quickly and has even demonstrated the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield (19.7 yards per catch average with one touchdown). There's not a lot of juking in his game, but he displays efficient agility and simply runs to daylight with his eyes always on the goal line. Williams isn't a bulldozer and doesn't appear to like running over defenders. He just runs around and past them.

Expect to see Williams adding strength through this season and learning how to play through the kind of contact he'll face at the Pac-12 level. But if he comes in with a blue-collar attitude, he might push McCormick for the third spot on the depth chart.

Dre'Vian Young - freshman, 5-9, 174:

Young hails from Nimitz High School in Houston, Tex. Highlights (courtesy of Hudl) show a player who is more wily and shifty than Williams but also features the 4.41 straight-line speed. Young appears difficult to bring down as he dances his way through defenses, but once in the open field, he's tough to catch. Clearly, at 174 pounds, Young needs to add weight and strength, which may indicate he won't be an immediate impact player. However, given his experience as a return man, one could see Young contribute on special teams.

According to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, "The running back position was solid throughout spring. Bubba Poole, Devontae Booker and Troy McCormick were all productive and appear ready to play."

Bottom line: Bubba Poole, as the returning starter, has the experience advantage heading into fall camp. He'll need to add some strength/weight or run with some attitude to hold off Devontae Booker, who looked better in the spring. After seeing the players in spring, I expect Booker to start the season as the number one running back with Bubba Poole as his backup. However, both could well be used in a two-running-back option formation, as Poole has been lauded in the past as a good receiver out of the backfield. (Frankly, I'd like to see Utah return to Urban Meyer's three back shotgun wings formation where the options are Utah Pass to the dive back or pitch out to the back running wide down the line.) In any case, Utah has a good one-two running back combination heading into fall, with a few good, young options as "change of pace" backs. As our own Shane Roberts noted in a previous post, the success of the running game may hinge on Devontae Booker and, to a lesser degree, the depth they have at the number three position. Given the three young players on the roster, all with 4.4 or better speed, Utah will have talent and depth.

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