SALT LAKE CITY — It took three games for former Utes running back Ty Jordan to officially win the starting job.
The talent was there for all to see from the beginning, but each game where he split reps with others in the running back room only delayed the inevitable — two running backs even transferred out of the program amid his ascent to the top spot in a show of his talent.
Jordan won the starting job and the hearts of all involved in the program. Not only was he naturally gifted, he was a charismatic figure and budding star that all loved. He was the future great running back that Utah is known for churning out of the program before his untimely and surprising death on Christmas.
And while his impact remains a constant fixture to the program — it will be readily apparent throughout the season how much he meant to the program — Utah has the unenviable task to name a successor. And Thursday's game against Weber State will go a long way in helping the coaching staff naturally, and in a live setting, settle on a pecking order for the four running backs vying for the starting job.
Going into the season opener, the competition stands squarely on the shoulders of four proven backs: redshirt freshman Micah Bernard, who enters his third season with the program and who split reps with Jordan last year; sophomore transfers Chris Curry (LSU) and Tavion Thomas (Independence C.C./Cinicinnati); and junior transfer TJ Pledger (Oklahoma).
And while Utah is committed to playing with all four for as long as necessary — "It just depends on when somebody wants to pull ahead," running back coach Kiel McDonald said — it's a situation where Utah needs to find one or two main guys that can lead the offense in the backfield.
"We've had bell cow backs here for years and years and years," McDonald said. "So we might have that guy. I would like it to be two backs, if we could, but if there's a guy that has truly separated himself, we're gonna go with that guy.
"I just want to win. I just want to win whatever that takes," McDonald added. "If it's three guys, if it was two guys — I think that staying fresh would be great."
Whatever the situation — an every-down back or a running-back-by-committee approach — everything is on the table for the Utes; and the coaching staff, at least for the time being, is content with the battle being settled on the field.
"Well, we have the plan in mind to play them all and give them all carries and all opportunities to show what they can do," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday ahead of the Weber State game. "The flow of the game — each one of them has their strengths — and so the flow of the game will dictate a lot of that.
"But we expect all of them to — we know they're all going to get playing time and they'll all get carries, unless something unforeseen happens — and then we'll see what the production level is and go from there as far as moving forward with a depth chart. Until it separates itself, we'll just keep them all as 1A, 1B and 1C, I guess."
The competition has been tough enough that all four will be given an equal shot, even if Thomas took much of the spotlight leading up to Thursday's game and appears to be a presumptive favorite for a key role in the offense. But Pledger and Curry have Power Five experience — Pledger more so than Curry — and Bernard was easily second on the depth chart to Jordan last season and has only gotten better.
What that means is anyone's guess until the practice setting shifts to real snaps with 51,444 fans cheering them on at Rice-Eccles Stadium. And while Weber State won't offer the same weekly competition that the Pac-12 will provide in the coming weeks, it's a good entry-level guide to naming a starter, or starters, for the season.
"All of them, they're well rounded," McDonald said. "You have to be well rounded in this offense, for sure. You've got to be able to catch the ball, you've got to be able to run routes, you've got to be able to protect, you've got to be able to run with power, speed. So all of those guys, even though they might be bigger or smaller, they all have those attributes — all of them do.
"We want to continue to be physical, we want to be downhill, one-cut runners, and we just want to be the best that we can be."
It's against Weber State where Utah will attempt to find the best options for the season. And while all four have a viable shot at winning the job, it's as simple as can be: "Best players play."
Ty Jordan Memorial Scholarship recipient named
In one of the first such outward expressions to remember Ty Jordan this season, Whittingham named Jordan's former high school teammate, Utes safety Aaron Lowe, as the first-ever recipient of the memorial scholarship that featured a $100,000 donation from Kyle and Jamie Whittingham.
The team's leadership council, which is made up of 18 members of the football team, nominated Lowe among several other players before the entire team voted on the honor. Lowe, who decided to change his number from No. 2 to No. 22 to honor Jordan, was the most deserving of the scholarship as one of the players who knew him best.
"Ty made everyone around him better," Lowe said. "He made me better. My friendship with Ty means a lot because he was always pushing me to be my best. He never let me settle for less. I want to make sure his legacy lives on through me."