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What drove Kyle Whittingham to fire his longest tenured assistant and put his offense in the hands of a coordinator who just made the jump from high school last year?

Same thing that he's always wanted since joining the league: a conference championship.

When the Utah head football coach was evaluating the regular season leading up to the Foster Farms Bowl, he determined that the defense, the run game and special teams were playing at a championship level. But again, in the third straight season of nine wins or more yet still out of the Pac-12 South's top spot, the passing game held them back.

"It's a situation where we were getting close — we were really close — to reaching our goal of trying to win a Pac-12 championship," he said. "We gotta improve throwing the football. That's really what Troy Taylor brings to the table: a history of prolific offenses, as well as quarterback tutoring and grooming. We just felt like that's what our needs were."

So Utah is rolling the dice on Taylor, the 48-year-old coordinator from Eastern Washington who developed his offense for years at Folsom High in Sacramento. It promises to be an uptempo, receiver-heavy system with lots of passing — a dramatic shift from what Utah has traditionally run during the Pac-12 era when it has finished ninth or lower each year in passing yards.

Taylor has said he's been promised freedom to run his offense wholesale. Whittingham agreed that was the case, bristling at critics who believe he's hampered his previous coordinators — he's had nine different OC configurations in the last 10 years.

"There's been kind of underlying sentiment that offensive coordinators here have been put under wraps, but that's just not the case," he said. "They have complete autonomy with only one stipulation: protect the football. I don't think anybody in the country doesn't have that stipulation when it comes to taking care of the football."

Whittingham said it was a difficult decision to axe Aaron Roderick, Utah's play caller for the past two years and an assistant for 12 years. But ultimately he didn't see the development of the passing game that he wanted to see.

"It's hard, but the bottom line is it's my responsibility to do what's best for our players and program and give our guys the best chance to win," he said. "I'm not trying to say offense isn't my responsibility. The buck stops here. Everything in our program is my responsibility."

One of Utah's co-coordinators remains on staff: offensive line coach Jim Harding. After losing senior center J.J. Dielman, Harding made do with a fourth-string starter in Nick Nowakowski, and Garett Bolles and Isaac Asiata were all-conference linemen.

Calling Harding "one of the best offensive line coaches in the country," Whittingham said he thought it was imperative to keep him on staff. But Harding's job title has been tweaked: He's no longer the co-coordinator, but he's added the title of "assistant head coach" formerly occupied by Dennis Erickson.

"There's not a lot of coordinators in the country that are coaching O-lines as well," Whittingham. "Assistant head coach is an important responsibility, and it makes sense to do that with Troy coming in with a new slate."

Running backs coach search open

Utah has another open position: Running backs coach. When will that be filled? Could be tomorrow. Could be after Signing Day. Whittingham said there's "no timeline" to make a decision.

"We're talking about it as a staff, and there's no sense of urgency," he said. "We're discussing what the best fit is for our staff and our needs. We're going through the process, but it's difficult to do that and recruit at the same time. Our focus right now is on recruiting."

With Taylor's hire, Utah is now only a man down in recruiting. Whittingham said recruits who had been assigned to Roderick or Erickson are now assigned to other coaches on staff. Utah has three more recruiting weekends in the current cycle, and lots of work to do: The Utes have 12 commits (two who have signed) in the 2017 class, which is the second-fewest in the league.

On Erickson, who retired, Whittingham said the 69-year-old assistant had been "taking it year-by-year." Erickson had served as Utah's offensive coordinator in 2012 before settling in as running backs coach for the past three years. A decorated head coach in college and the NFL, Erickson helped open junior college and Florida pipelines in recruiting.

"You don't get an opportunity to get a guy with that experience or background very often," Whittingham said. "He's had a terrific career. We'll miss him."

Quarterbacks will compete

With a new offensive coordinator coming in, it follows that a quarterback competition will ensue. And Whittingham said it will — with an asterisk.

"Troy is going in as No. 1; he's established that," Whittingham said. "But there's no reason Tyler shouldn't get a shot, just like anyone else at any other position. It's all about production. If Tyler outperforms Troy, he'll be the guy."

Troy Williams had some ups and downs as Utah's starter this season, finishing with 2,757 yards, 15 passing touchdowns, five rushing touchdowns and eight interceptions. There were transcendent games, such as the comeback he led against USC, and disappointing ones, such as the thudding finale against Colorado.

Huntley got a bit of action in the Foster Farms Bowl, throwing one pass (a 36-yard completion) and rushing eight times. Whittingham said he hopes that Taylor can get the most out of both quarterbacks this spring and beyond.

No transfers — yet

This is usually the time of year when unhappy players let Utah know they want to move on. And yet, Whittingham's door has been open, but not many have come knocking.

Whittingham said no one has asked for a release since the season ended. At a team meeting in the last few days, all players Utah expected were present.

"Transfers are unpredictable: Some years you have some, some you don't have any," Whittingham said. "I think it's just random, not any real pattern to it. It's not too late to try to move on, but so far this year, it's status quo."

Utah did have several players leave the team during the season: quarterback Brandon Cox, running back Marcel Manalo, defensive back Tavaris Williams and defensive end Kendall Huey.

Twitter: @kylegoon