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The Utes anticipated a three-man running back competition this week, but in a stunning turn, one of them has decided to call it a career.
Senior running back Joe Williams has retired from football to finish his sociology degree. Meeting with the media in street clothes following Tuesday's practice, Williams said nagging injuries and a loss of desire led him to meet with coach Kyle Whittingham this week.
"Knowing how my body's been these past couple months, where I'm at mentally and physically, I'm not at the point where I can compete at the level I need to for the team and everybody," he said. "I feel as though this is the right decision. I'm going to miss it, of course. These guys are my family and [I] love these boys to death. But it's for the best interests."
The Utes enter Saturday's game at San Jose State with two running backs with significant experience this year: junior Troy McCormick and freshman Zack Moss. Both had over 58 yards on the ground on 12 carries apiece this past Saturday in a win against BYU.
At 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds, McCormick has been used both in the backfield and as a receiver. Moss appeared at the top of the depth chart this week on the heels of his Utah debut, and the young but physically imposing back is poised to inherit many of Williams' responsibilities.
"His lower body is huge," running backs coach Dennis Erickson said. He's very explosive, hard to bring down, got good feet. I'm looking forward to seeing him play more."
William's retirement was only one of three big stories Tuesday: Whittingham also announced that senior defensive end Kylie Fitts will miss the season with a foot injury suffered against BYU, and that senior receiver Cory Butler-Byrd has been reinstated from suspension.
Fitts was expected to be one of Utah's prime performers this season, picked as a preseason all-conference defensive end by ESPN. He had 1.5 sacks this year, but Whittingham said he was injured in the first half against the Cougars and sat out the second. Although the staff initially thought he had suffered a sprain, further evaluation showed "much more extensive" damage.
He is expected to apply for a medical hardship waiver to play next year
"It's not a slam dunk like some of them are," Whittingham said. "We'll have to see. It'll be a process."
Butler-Byrd was suspended last month after being charged with damaging a campus police vehicle and building, to which he entered a guilty plea in abeyance before the season. The expected starting slot receiver spent the past two weeks on scout team duty, still serving a suspension from games.
Butler-Byrd's plea deal requires him to undergo counseling and not commit a criminal offense through next year. Whittingham said so far, the L.A. native has met the team's expectations since the July incident.
"He's eligible to play," Whittingham said. "Whether or not he will play this week is to be determined. … He's still got things to adhere to, but he's good to go."
Between Williams and Fitts, the Utes lose two key players who were critical to their success last season.
Williams stepped in late in the year for the injured Devontae Booker, gaining 477 yards and starting in wins over Colorado and BYU in 2015. The 5-foot-11, 205-pound back entered this season as the starter, but lost ground by fumbling in each of the first two games and gaining only 75 yards.
Whittingham said he had a sense that Williams wasn't the same back that he was at the end of last year. When Williams asked to meet him this week, the coach assumed they would iron out whatever Williams' issues were.
Instead, Williams laid out his decision to retire. While the Utes could use Williams this season, Whittingham said he understood.
"Nothing to do with playing time, nothing to do with bad feelings, he's leaving on good terms," he said. "It was a surprise in a way, but I could tell something was bothering him. It explains a lot meeting with him today. … When he laid it out for me, I couldn't disagree with him."
Fitts racked up 41 tackles, 4 fumble recoveries and defended 10 passes last year, becoming known for his long reach and pass-batting while starting in place of injured Hunter Dimick.
Defensive line is considered one of the deepest units of the team. It is anticipated that Utah will start Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu at end while mixing in Bradlee Anae and Chris Hart for added depth.