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Monson: For Utah football, there's good news, better news, and the best news at QB

Published March 11, 2017 5:35 pm

Utah football • A wide-open battle, a new, full-throttle attack and a hands-off head coach could signal things are on upswing
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After years of substandard play at the most important position on the field at Utah, there's good news and better news and the best news of all for the Utes.

We'll save the best for last.

What's good is this: There will be an all-out battle for the starting privilege at quarterback. Throw all preconceived notions away, and start pretty much fresh. That's what the Ute coaches, led by new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, are doing.

Yeah, Taylor has looked at film of the three dogs in the fight — last year's starter Troy Williams, sophomore Tyler Huntley, and Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman. But the first time he saw any of them throw live was Thursday, Utah's first day of spring practices, so he's pried open his brain to whatever impressions come, even if they surprise him. That's about as fresh and honest as any start can be.

And those quarterbacks know it's a free-for-all. Whoever shows the best over the next month, through summer workouts, and in fall camp gets the job. No biases on Taylor's part, no recruiting promises to keep, no nothing … but guys learning the offense, making smart decisions, throwing tight spirals, putting go in the O.

After a practice session the other day, Taylor said of his candidates: "They're very hungry to learn, very coachable, and they're athletic."

As for the 50 miles of open road to the starter's spot, Taylor said: "Everybody appreciates a clean slate. And the ability to come in and compete. So, these guys will share equal reps. Whoever plays the best will be the starter."

He stopped, to clarify.

"Troy and Tyler will get equal reps and Cooper will get some reps. Those guys will split the majority."

That open road is already narrowing. If newcomer Bateman has any shot at winning the job, he'll have to come on wide and strong, which might be part of the plan. He expects to do exactly that. That's his plan.

"I don't think I'd be here if it wasn't," he said.

On the other hand, if it doesn't work out, Bateman could switch positions: "It's all up to coach Whitt."

In the meantime, Bateman said he, like Williams and Huntley, will scrap for the prize: "It's a new team, a new system, a new everything. I'm getting used to it. I'm a third quarterback. I watched Troy and Ty for most of the day and I have to earn the respect of the coaches and my teammates and get more reps. … I'm out here with a hundred guys I don't know. Building chemistry with them is tough. That just comes with time. I'm looking forward to it."

Williams isn't adapting to a new program, but he is attempting to concurrently better his own play and get his mitts around Taylor's new offense. He said he loves the attack and believes it suits his talents. For instance, that offense encourages the QB to dial in on what he likes, and let it fly.

Said Willliams: "Coach Taylor says, 'You like the matchup, get it up.'"

The quarterback smiled broadly when he said it.

Asked if he has more of a green light now, Williams said, still smiling: "Most definitely. Just trying to get more comfortable out there with the receivers, just the whole system. Get more reps. … It's good for everybody, good for the O-line, good for the receivers, the whole offensive group has bought into the system. We're ready to go."

As for the fight for the position he held a season ago, he said: "It's been like that since after the bowl game. Coach Whitt told me we were bringing in a new OC, and coach Taylor told me it would be open competition. So, I just came in with the same mindset. Just focus on how to get better. … This offense is not too hard. Coach Taylor wants to make it as simple as possible. Just go out there and play and not worry about anything else. It's progression-based. Go through your progression and you'll be fine."

Huntley agreed, saying he loves the setup, that it has his game written all over it, and he embraces the scrum to earn the right to run the thing: "The competition just makes us better. It's a friendly competition. We teach each other, we learn from each other, we just get better. … The offense is great. It gives us a chance to do big things."

The better news is the nature of Taylor's attack. After a decade of less-than-imaginative offense, the coordinator plans on putting more pop into the passing game.

"We'll have fast tempo," he said. "We'll spread the ball around, be aggressive."

When he was asked if he aimed to throw for 400 yards a game, Taylor said: "I just want to get a first down."

He was lying, of course. He wants more.

Taylor gave some clear hints regarding the kind of quarterback he prefers.

"Most of my guys have been dual-threat," he said. "But Jake Browning was a drop-back guy. The system can adjust to either style. You can be a drop-back guy, but if you're that, you've got to be very accurate and complete a high percentage of your passes. If not, a dual-threat quarterback is ideal."

And the best news?

Kyle Whittingham will allow Taylor to run his own shop. He has learned from the past. Controlling the line of scrimmage, preserving possession, and running the ball have been so ingrained in his defensive background that acquiescing to a throttle-up attack is no small step. He's acted more casual about his stance in recent seasons, showing some willingness to change.

Now, he has to. That's why he hired Taylor. Forget the other nine guys who have occupied the same seat. This is something different. Doing it the old way will get a team through the middle part of the Pac-12. It does not get it to a championship.

"Bottom line is scoring points," Whittingham said. "That's the most important thing for an offense, taking care of the football and scoring points. It doesn't matter how you get it in the end zone."

So, he had to slip that taking-care-of-the-ball part in there. But it's a new day for Utah football, where offense isn't seen as an expletive. It's a means to actually … well, you know, score points. And the Utes are engaging in a battle, a struggle, a crusade to discover the quarterback best equipped to lead it.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM. Twitter: @GordonMonson.






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