"He came in and let us know that we're filling big shoes with Joe [Williams], [Devontae] Booker and guys who came before," senior running back Jordan Howard said. "We gotta carry that standard no matter what offense we're in, what we're doing. Running backs have always been the guys who carry the team here."
Installing a passing-heavy offense changes little for Utah's running backs, who are trying to reach that standard set in the past few years. And nobody knows that quite like McDonald, who came aboard shortly after offensive coordinator Troy Taylor and finds himself with the weighty task of replacing Dennis Erickson.
McDonald played for Erickson at Idaho, and he served as a grad assistant to the coach at Arizona State. While Erickson had more of a laissez-faire style of coaching, McDonald acknowledges he's a little more hands-on.
"Coach E was a great coach, and when I played for him, he wanted players to make plays," he said. "I like to be a teacher. I like to make sure we do the details better than anybody else."
What falls under "the details" includes showing up to meetings early and refining fundamentals. It means becoming technically perfect at protection schemes, which will be more common in Taylor's new offense.
McDonald coached with Taylor at Eastern Washington last year and is the only member of the staff with experience of trying to mold a team to that offense in one season. Sophomore Devonta'e Henry-Cole acknowledged there's a lot to catch up on for the group. McDonald stays on them.
"He's onto us; he's a great coach," he said. "We're going to be doing swings, line up in slot, lot of protection. We're not only running the ball we're out a lot. But he's teaching us a lot."
McDonald walked into a position group with a lot of injury challenges. He's without Armand Shyne, who tore his ACL last season, and Zack Moss has been limited for much of spring. Incoming back T.J. Green won't join until summer. All three could be major players for time this fall.
But among those getting reps this spring are players who are a bit like McDonald himself: underdogs looking for a shot to step into big shoes. Henry-Cole received praise from Kyle Whittingham after Utah's first scrimmage, and Jordan Howard broke a few tackles himself.
While Erickson's retirement may have seemed imminent to some within the program, Howard said it came as a surprise to him. As he left the field after the Foster Farms Bowl, Erickson gave him a wink and said he'd see him later.
"Hearing that news kind of hurt because coach Erickson was the guy who convinced me to come walk on here," Howard said. "But coach McDonald is doing a great job here. … He's just a guy who really cares and really shows that he cares."
Is there another Booker or Williams in Utah's running back room? McDonald hopes his backs get healthy soon, but he's not going to quibble with what he's seen so far this spring.
"Sure, there is a lot on their plate," he said. "But every guy who has been in the backfield has been up to the challenge. They're showing me they're able to play when their number is called."
About Kiel McDonald
• Served as Eastern Washington running backs coach for five seasons
• Played for former RB coach Dennis Erickson at Idaho, served as GA at Arizona State
• Helped improve EWU from 79.0 rushing average, 3.0 ypc to 183.7 ypg, 5.3 ypc in two years