A superior ground attack is practically synonymous with Utah football.
And the Utes have had some moments of brilliance in that regard en route to their 4-0 start and No. 10 national ranking this season.
There has been plenty of “three yards and a cloud of dust,” too, though.
For one thing, Utah’s sluggish passing attack has enabled opposing defenses to start stacking the box and loading up against the run. For another, the team’s depth at the position has been seriously tested in the early going.
Key backup Micah Bernard, arguably the team’s most effective runner in the opening win against Florida, suffered a season-ending injury the next week. Another key backup, Chris Curry, came into the season injured and has yet to get fully going.
Those setbacks would be easier to navigate if lead back Ja’Quinden Jackson wasn’t also dealing with an injury, which flared up again early in this past Saturday’s victory over UCLA and saw him helped to the locker room in the first half.
That led to Jaylon Glover racking up 25 carries vs. the Bruins.
“Running back has kind of been a little bit of a musical chairs position for us,” said head coach Kyle Whittingham.
It figures to be pretty straightforward for now, though — Glover is the guy until Jackson is healthy.
He’s gotten himself into a bell-cow headspace, knowing that a bunch of carries are coming his way.
“It’s huge. I mean, it’s always nice to have your legs fresh, but in moments like that when my coaches just trust me to stay in throughout, it’s just get comfortable, kind of feel the game out,” said Glover, a sophomore from Lakeland, Fla. “It’s kind of a win-win — the more carries you get, the more you kind of feel out the game, and the better your decision-making. You can kind of tell how the defense is coming and just bring that momentum in.”
Asked what the 5-foot-8, 205-pounder brings to the table, his teammates were enthusiastic.
“Everything. He’s a guy who can do that,” said quarterback Nate Johnson. “He may be small, but he can move. He can move like he’s 6-2, he moves like JJ. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s quick. He knows what he’s doing on the field.”
“He’s a dude that’s going to run hard every single time,” added receiver Devaughn Vele. “We saw it on Saturday with a lot of guys going down. Usually we have a good flow of running backs cycling through, but he understood that once JJ went down, he had to be that guy to kind of put it on his shoulders and take all the reps. So it was good to see him running the ball as hard as he was, and it makes you want to block for him even more.”
Glover’s hard running has not yet yielded a ton of production, though.
Through four games, he’s gained 179 yards on 48 carries — just 3.7 per. And in that “breakout” UCLA game, where he amassed 86 yards, he was actually even less efficient, averaging only 3.4 yards per carry.
Still, he has had some memorable moments this season, notably scoring a touchdown with 17 seconds left vs. Baylor — a play that ultimately won the game for the Utes, but which also earned the player a talking to from running backs coach Quinton Ganther.
Whittingham has every belief that Glover can be a capable lead back in the interim.
Even if he perhaps doesn’t fit the traditional profile.
“He’s kind of a tweener back. He’s not really a power back, but he’s not a scatback. He’s a guy that can run in between the tackles as well as break it outside on occasion. He’s more compact — I mean, he’s not very tall, 5-7, but he’s 205 pounds, so he’s thick. He’s proven to be very durable through the years,” said Whittingham. “… He’s a really good running back and he’s getting his opportunity now, and we’ll see what he can do, assuming that we don’t have anybody return this week.”
The coach added that the stunted running production vs. UCLA — and in other games, for that matter — was less on Glover and the running backs and more attributable to other problem areas of the offense.
The Utes’ biggest issue right now, he explained, is the need to have “more of a threatening throw game, because when teams know you’re not going to throw, and [they] load of the box, it’s tough sledding in there.”
Further compounding the situation is an offensive line that has not fully found its stride yet, and is not operating at peak efficiency in his estimation.
“I think we need to be a little more dominant up front. We expect to be — we’ve got a good offensive line. They haven’t been bad this year, in a couple of the games we’ve rushed for more than 200 yards, but a couple of the games we haven’t been so good. And so [we’re] trying to find some more consistency up front. And physicality,” Whittingham said. “… We’ve just got to be better executing our zone-blocking scheme. Being able to execute that better, and have the running backs maybe get a little more yards after contact, that would help.”
Which is not to say Glover has done everything right while merely becoming a victim of circumstance.
Both player and coach said there is work to do in the area of pass protection and blitz pickup. And while Glover said he feels like he makes good reads with the ball, particularly in the open field, his decision-making without it also leaves room for improvement.
And so, heading into his presumed leading role Friday night for another Pac-12 tilt at Oregon State, he’s not thinking about the moribund passing attack, he’s not focusing on the O-line. He’s making sure he’s prepared with what he needs to do, he’s devoting his attention to knowing the game plan inside and out.
His gig may be a temporary one, but he wants to prove it’s warranted.
And, most of all, he wants to keep the Utes’ undefeated streak going.
“In the run game, I have to be efficient, along with other guys in the room, so they can respect the run and [we will] not be one-dimensional,” Glover said. “… Mentally just making sure I’m already prepared, making sure I’m hitting all cues, not making mistakes. So whatever I can do to … get the victory, that’s where my mind is at right now.”
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