SALT LAKE CITY — Early in fall camp, back before the clouds had come, Ute head football coach Kyle Whittingham was asked if quarterback Jordan Wynn could withstand the punishment he would take this season.
Wynn is the guy who added 40 pounds as a freshman just to be called angular.
Whittingham replied that Wynn's right shoulder was 100 percent, which didn't really answer the question. Then he said, "We can't tell for sure how it will play out, but we think he's going to be a guy who will be able to sustain it."
They think? Wynn has bulked up from his freshman days, but he's still no Ben Roethlisberger. There was the shoulder injury that slowed him half of last year and kept him out of the bowl game. There were the two games he missed with an injured thumb. When Wynn missed the second half of the Washington game this year, Whittingham said his QB might be out 2-3 weeks, but added: "It doesn't look good."
He must have sensed it right then. On Monday, Wynn was officially parked for the season, this time for surgery on his left shoulder. There goes the likelihood of a bowl game, here comes the chance of a two-win season.
Utah is good enough to compete in the Pac-12, but not without its starting quarterback. And not with a junior college transfer who was originally ticketed for Nebraska-Omaha.
"Quarterback is a key part of what you're doing — what everybody is doing," Whittingham said.
One thing is certain: Every game will be a carnival ride. Jon Hays is a confident replacement, but he's not Pac-12 ready. Backups are like spare tires: You use them in a pinch, for short distances only.
On the bright side, the Utes now know their future. Had Wynn been salvageable, they might have muddled through a few games waiting for him to get back. Then it likely would have taken weeks to return to speed.
"That's just life. I mean, it's hard," said offensive coordinator Norm Chow. "This place, it's even harder."
That's how it goes when you've been at USC and UCLA before Utah. Front-line talent is good, second string is dicey. Media and fans keep channeling Brett Ratliff, who subbed for Brian Johnson in 2005. He too was a transfer from Butte Community College. Ratliff led Utah to victory over BYU at season's end, then directed an Emerald Bowl rout of Georgia Tech.
But that doesn't seem likely here. Hays has four interceptions in 1 1/2 games. So how can the Utes win with their piecemeal attack?
They can be a run-heavy team. That sounds good in theory, but top ball-carrier John White isn't fast enough or big enough to carry the team, especially when opponents know he's coming. Backup Harvey Langhi remains far from a finished product. Five Utah fumbles in the last two games don't bode well for odds of compensating for the drop in firepower.
"Opponents can take the run game away by just adding one more guy than you can block, and that's what good teams do," said Chow.
They can use deception. It would be hard to find a more innovative offensive coordinator than Chow. Last Saturday, he called a reverse and a flea-flicker against Arizona State, and they worked. But trick plays are riskier than ever with an inexperienced quarterback.
"You do whatever it takes to win the game," Chow said. "See how it unfolds."
They can dominate with defense. That's the logical scenario because Utah has shown potential in that area. But in each of the last two games, the defense faded badly after being too long on the field. Expect that to continue as teams devise ways to force the Utes into 3-and-outs.
Theoretically, one or all of the above could keep the Utes afloat. Realistically, it probably won't avert a losing season. The Utes said all along they needed to keep Wynn from injury.
You can't lose your wallet and still bluff your way through an airport.
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