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Utah's next offensive coordinator was scheming against high school teams two years ago.
But in hiring Troy Taylor a former NFL quarterback and a respected passing guru Utah football feels it may be hitting upon the next big thing.
The Utes announced the hire of 48-year-old Taylor on Monday as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, plucking the Eastern Washington playcaller from the Big Sky after only one season. In that season, Taylor coached a former walk-on to an FCS record-setting year with 5,160 passing yards to validate a system he created at his California passing academy and at powerhouse Folsom High in Sacramento the system he has been given "full freedom" to install at Utah starting this spring.
"We don't huddle, and we have the ability to go fast," Taylor said in an interview with The Tribune. "We try to be aggressive and attack all parts of the field. It's a little different than what some people are used to."
For a team on its ninth offensive coordinator configuration in 10 seasons and which has languished in the bottom tier of passing offense every year in the Pac-12, Utah is ready to take a risk to improve its "throw game" woes.
Taylor replaces Utah's co-coordinator set-up from the past two years: Playcaller Aaron Roderick was fired last week, while offensive line coach Jim Harding was named "assistant head coach."
"I have watched Troy Taylor closely over the years when he was coaching innovative high school offenses in California and was eager to see how that translated to college coaching," coach Kyle Whittingham said in a statement. "He achieved the same results at Eastern Washington and we are fortunate that Troy was interested in bringing that style of offense here to Utah."
Utah finished ninth in the Pac-12 in passing yards (216.7 ypg), eighth in scoring offense (29.3 ppg) and seventh in total offense (430.7 pyg). Whittingham pointed to Utah's struggles in the red zone as the particular concern this year, as the team finished 110th nationally with a 77.8 scoring rate nearing the end zone.
Taylor has a different track record.
Calling plays for the Eagles last season, he directed an offense that finished No. 1 in the FCS in passing yards (401 ypg), No. 2 in total yards (529 ypg) and No. 3 in scoring offense (42.4 ppg). EWU went 12-2 this past season on the way to an FCS playoffs semifinal finish, and quarterback Gage Gabrud threw for 48 touchdowns. The team's season opener was played in Pullman, Wash., where the Eagles upset Washington State 45-42.
Taylor said he got the job somewhat unexpectedly: Washington coach Chris Petersen recommended him to head coach Beau Baldwin.
"Getting your foot in the door is the biggest challenge," he said. "The football transition, it was pretty much the same."
Whittingham knew Taylor long before that: He was the founder of The Passing Academy camp in Sacramento, and coached at Folsom High, where the Utes have recruited. There, he won five section titles and set astronomical passing records, including a stint with Jake Browning, now the quarterback at Washington, as the signal-caller. In 2014, Browning threw 91 touchdown passes, and went on to set records for career TD passes (229) and yards (16,775).
Taylor was also the coach of Sam Whittingham, son of tight ends coach Fred Whittingham and nephew to Kyle kick-starting his relationship with the Utah staff. In an interview with the Tribune, Fred Whittingham said he long admired Taylor's offenses and tough-nosed coaching style. But he said he wasn't in on the hire: Kyle simply asked for Taylor's phone number during the process.
"He did great things at Folsom: Their offense was light years ahead of everyone else," Fred Whittingham said. "You always wonder. How's this going to work against the Pac-12? I think he proved it in the first game of the year when they beat Washington State."
The Utes also bring in a quarterbacks coach with experience at the position: Taylor held the career passing record at Cal before Jared Goff went on to break it last year. He played for the New York Jets for two seasons before coaching at Colorado and Cal from 1994-1999.
Taylor said the hiring process happened quickly. Kyle Whittingham reassured him that he would have the full license to run his style.
"He just said, 'Be who you are,'" Taylor said. "Utah, obviously they have great tradition there and a great offensive staff to work with. Hires like this are all about fit, and I think this is a good fit."
Taylor's system is reputed to be an aggressive passing attack that targets all areas of the field, influenced by such innovators as Bill Walsh and Mike Leach. He also has different quarterback progressions and reads than most other offenses, which he said allows passers to play "quickly, instinctually and with confidence."
Taylor inherits Utah's starting quarterback from last season, rising senior Troy Williams, who threw for 2,757 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions while the Utes went 9-4. Williams had the most passing yards by any Utah quarterback since Brian Johnson. Rising sophomore Tyler Huntley also played sparingly in the Foster Farms Bowl, with Kyle Whittingham saying he would "get his shot in spring."
After installing his system at Eastern Washington last year, Taylor said he believes Utah's offensive personnel is just as capable of adapting. While he's aware of the tenuous history of Utah's OC job, he's also not bothered by it.
"All I can do is focus on what's enabled me to be successful in the past," he said. "Kyle wanted me to have full freedom to do what I do offensively. I feel comfortable doing that. I think to have success, you have to be driven by a desire to be successful and not have a fear of failure."
Utah is going into its ninth offensive coordinator configuration since 2005. The others:
2005-08 • Andy Ludwig
2009 • Dave Schramm
2010 • Dave Schramm/Aaron Roderick
2011 • Norm Chow
2012 • Brian Johnson
2013 • Dennis Erickson
2014 • Dave Christensen
2015-16 • Aaron Roderick/Jim Harding