SALT LAKE CITY — There was always something disappointing about the University of Utah’s offense last season, beyond its ongoing quarterback problems. Other factors included inconsistency on the line and in the backfield.
Star receivers Jake Murphy and Kenneth Scott were out for long periods due to injuries.
Even so, there was the hope that somehow the Utes would win six games and become bowl eligible. They did so 2011 after quarterback Jordan Wynn went down. Then-offensive coordinator Norm Chow patched things together and got the Utes to a winning season and a Sun Bowl victory.
But this year’s Utes never got that far, and Travis Wilson’s injury/health problems weren’t the only reasons. So it came as no surprise on Friday that Kyle Whittingham made his first loud move of the offseason, shifting co-coordinators Brian Johnson and Dennis Erickson to quarterbacks and running backs coaches, respectively.
Whether it’s baking soufflé or sharing coordinator duties, two cooks in the kitchen make for tricky business.
Whittingham had to have wondered a year ago whether his two-man plan was sound. Would he himself want to share duties as head coach?
Unless your names are Kenny and Dolly, duets seldom work.
But it wasn’t merely the Utes’ inertia that stood out in 2013. It was that Utah rarely tried anything flashy. Early in the season, the offense was surprisingly conservative. That can happen when a long schedule lies ahead. No reason to give away all the good stuff in non-conference games, right?
After losing five straight, though, they found themselves playing for the Consolation Bowl. That came on Nov. 30 when the Utes beat Colorado in their final game. Still, Utah had seemed tethered to a spike during its winless stretch.
Near the end of 2012, Johnson tried things out like reverses and flea-flickers as he attempted to get something going offensively. But this year, with former national champion coach Erickson along, the attack was largely vanilla. A play-action pass qualified as adventurous.
Utah ended up 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense, ninth in passing and scoring.
If there’s something familiar in the hiring of ex-Wyoming coach Dave Christensen as the new coordinator, there’s a reason. Whittingham went back to another buddy. Whittingham and Christensen coached together as assistants at Idaho State in the early 1990s.
While Christensen’s credentials are good — at Missouri he fashioned one of the nation’s top offenses — he also has a key ingredient for a Whittingham hire: familiarity. Jay Hill, recently hired by Weber State, Morgan Scalley, Chad Kauha’aha’a, Andy Ludwig, Kalani Sitaki, Gary Andersen, Tim Davis, Johnson and Chow previously coached or played for/with Whittingham.
Question: How many Whittingham assistants does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: One, but he and Whittingham have to have worked on it together in the past.
According to a news release by the university, Christensen is “one of the pioneers of the spread offense.” That didn’t take him far at Wyoming. His teams went 27-34 in five seasons, which actually isn’t terrible in Laramie, considering how hard it is to recruit there. Since the school is reportedly paying him a $570,000 buyout, Utah could get him at a bargain price. That happened when Chow arrived after getting fired as UCLA’s offensive coordinator.
While Christensen is a reasonable choice, there’s no guarantee of an improved offense. Johnson was expected to produce more this year and Erickson was supposed to breathe life into Utah's attack. But it didn’t happen for a lot of reasons.
Yet there’s really no mystery to the formula. After three disappointing Pac-12 seasons, Whittingham’s job will also be closely scrutinized in 2014. The first thing a coach does when things go south is shake up his staff.
So Christensen is the newest face in town, charged with revitalizing Utah’s anemic offense. If it works, Whittingham will be applauded for his foresight. If not, he’ll surely be blamed for the company he keeps.
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