SALT LAKE CITY — It can be so close yet so far away for the backup quarterback on any football team. The backup is always seconds away from playing in a given game, yet may go an entire season without seeing the field.
At the University of Utah, being the backup quarterback means your chances of playing are next to certain.
Over the past 17 seasons, the Utes have employed a single starting quarterback for the season just four times, with two or even three quarterbacks sharing the starting job in the other 13 seasons.
So far this year, the Utes have had just one starting quarterback in Travis Wilson. However, Ute backup QB Adam Schulz was thrust into the spotlight for more than a half last Saturday night in Arizona when Wilson came off the field with a finger injury that wouldn’t allow him to grip the football properly.
There was speculation early in the week about Wilson not being able to play, but he has been practicing and plans to start this week at USC. But even though Wilson declared on Tuesday that he was “100 percent” going to start, there’s still some concern that he could experience the same problem as last week in Arizona when he couldn’t grip the ball well enough to pass adequately.
That would mean Schulz would be the guy for the Utes.
The sophomore walk-on from Wisconsin is quite matter-of-fact about the possibility of playing this week or anytime in the near future for the Utes.
“It was exciting, a nice opportunity to get out there and help the team,’’ he said of playing a little more than a half in Tucson. “I feel that with practice this week, learning the game plan, I’ll be even more comfortable. You never know what’s going to happen, so you have to be ready every game, regardless.’’
That’s the life of a backup quarterback. You hold the clipboard and help signal in the plays each week, but with the drop of a hat, or rather your starting quarterback, you’re looking for your helmet and running onto the field.
Last week, Schulz at least had a couple of minutes of warning after Wilson came off the field with an injured hand with just under three minutes remaining in the first half. After Arizona took the ball, Schulz was told to start warming up. He entered the game with 1:29 left and immediately connected on a pair of passes and led the Utes into field goal range.
He said he didn’t feel nervous once he took his first snap.
“There weren’t many nerves before I went in to play against Arizona,’’ he said. “I’ve been here long enough to learn from Jordan (Wynn) and Jon (Hays). When I first got here as a freshman is when I got nervous the most, but I’ve been there and experienced it so it’s not that nerve-wracking.’’
Schulz finished with 12 of 23 completions for 142 yards and a touchdown and said of his first substantial action, “It was all right, but after watching the film I saw a lot of things I could have done better.’’
For Schulz, even being the backup is an unlikely story on a team blessed with highly recruited quarterbacks such as freshmen Connor Manning, Brandon Cox and Micah Thomas.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder played for a wing-T offense in Muskego, Wis., where he said he passed “five or six times a game.’’ He led his team to a 9-1 record and his 745 yards and nine touchdowns for the season, which may look like two-game totals for some quarterbacks, set school records at Muskego High.
Schulz didn’t have any Division I offers out of high school, but thanks to his quarterback coach Roy Cutshaw, he was able to come out to Utah.
“I was thinking of walking on somewhere, but I had a coach who didn’t want me to give up and play Division III back home,’’ he said. “So he looked around and found a good place for a quarterback to go with a good opportunity to play and get a scholarship and it ended up being Utah. I owe him a lot. It turned out what I wanted, what I hoped for.’’
Schulz came to Utah as a walk-on in 2011 and immediately showed off a strong arm. He redshirted that season and in 2012 impressed a lot of folks with his play in the spring game when he led the Red team to a come-from-behind 22-21 victory when he completed two long passes, including a 50-yard TD to Reggie Dunn. Last fall he was awarded a scholarship and played backup to Wilson in the second half of the season, getting in one game.
It’s ironic for a guy who played for a running team in high school to be known for his passing rather than his running.
“His arm strength, that’s his No. 1 attribute,’’ said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “In fact he has the strongest arm of (our) quarterbacks and has a lot of confidence in his arm. He can put it in some pretty tight spots.’’
Schulz calls it a “big change” coming to college and expecting to throw the ball so much. “The hardest thing was adjusting to having to throw the ball a lot more and read defenses,’’ he said. “There’s a lot more on your shoulders.’’
Whittingham had said early in the week that Manning, the record-setting quarterback from Southern California, would compete for the starting job with Schulz if Wilson couldn’t play for more than a game. The Ute coach praised Manning this week but said he’s unlikely to take off his redshirt.
“Manning’s looked good, all year he’s progressed each week and taken a step forward,’’ Whittingham said. “As a true freshman, he’s really done a lot of good things as far as his command of the offense goes. But Manning has the redshirt label, so it would have to be pretty lopsided this late in the year to take that redshirt year off him.’’