Andrew J. Allred, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — There was a time, not so long ago, when Utah lacked depth at quarterback. In 2011, the Utes pretty much winged it with only Jordan Wynn and Jon Hays seeing significant time. Now, as they gear up for the 2014 season, there are six quarterbacks enrolled in school as spring ball approaches. Two more are slated to join the mix this fall.
“The cupboard is definitely full at quarterback and we feel it’s a good problem to have right now,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Spring ball will help us sort a lot of it out.”
When camp opens on March 18, returning starters Travis Wilson and Adam Schulz will compete with redshirt freshmen Brandon Cox, Conner Manning and Micah Thomas, as well as Wyoming transfer Jason Thompson. Over the summer, Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson and Louisiana prep star Donovan Isom will join the cast.
The large number of quarterbacks, though, doesn’t concern Whittingham.
“We view it as a positive,” he said. “It will work itself out in time.”
Whittingham acknowledged that some decisions — as to what the Utes are going to do moving forward — will have to come out of spring ball. He noted that it’ll be a good opportunity to get a closer look at the development of Cox, Manning and Thomas, who have yet to play in a college game. The Utes are awaiting word from the NCAA on Jason Thompson’s eligibility for this fall. If he’s cleared to play instead of having to sit out a year because of transfer rules, Thompson will also be included in the main mix along with Wilson and Schulz.
“We’ll try to get everybody at least some opportunities but that’s a lot of guys,” Whittingham said. “You don’t want to spread the reps too thin but it’ll work itself out. It’ll work itself out. That’s going to be my blanket, cover-all statement.”
Even so, questions abound as the Utes seek to bounce back from consecutive 5-7 seasons.
Before answering some of them, Whittingham reiterated his stance that things will work out.
“They’re all very good football players and some real good athletes in the bunch,” he said.
Wilson, who was sidelined for the last three games of the season when an intracranial artery issue was discovered, is back in the fold. He was recently cleared to participate in non-contact drills this spring. A more definitive evaluation is expected to be made in July.
“Obviously we got positive news. The final decision won’t be made until further on down the road just like we outlined at the very beginning,” Whittingham said. “But it was very encouraging and we’re optimistic. His future is unsure until he’s completely cleared, or completely ruled out, as the case may be. But we’re hoping for the former.”
For the most part, Utah quarterbacks are kept out of live situations in spring ball. As such, Whittingham noted that Wilson “will not be in any different position as far as what he does as any of the other quarterbacks.”
As far as getting No. 1 reps in spring ball, Whittingham declined to say if Wilson or anyone else for that matter would get such work.
“We’re still working through that. We’ll have a plan going into spring,” he said. “We may or may not announce that plan. But (Wilson) certainly played some good football for us last year.”
Whittingham did say, however, that all six players would enter spring ball as quarterbacks and that all would get the opportunity to take snaps at some point. Any possible position changes, he noted, were to be determined.
“We’ve got some really good athletes at QB,” Whittingham said. “So we’ll see how things shake out.”
The competition is expected to be keen. As spring ball approaches, Whittingham senses that everyone is on board.
“If you don’t want to compete then you’re in the wrong program,” he said, while noting that every position is in the same boat always — the team is always trying to recruit the best players possible. “That’s what this game is all about.”
The addition of Kendal Thompson, Whittingham explained, would have happened regardless of Wilson’s health situation.
“We think Kendal Thompson has a ton of ability so that really was not a factor in the decision,” he said. “Always interested in getting good players in your program, and he’s a very good player.”
Thompson is graduating from Oklahoma in May and will be immediately eligible with two seasons to play. Whittingham described him as a tremendous talent and a dual-threat quarterback who is exceptionally quick with an ability to extend a play.
The inclusion of Thompson creates an uncertain future for all of the candidates.
“We’ll see what happens,” Whittingham said. “The cream will rise to the top, as it always does.”
Whittingham added that the Utes expect to hit the ground running this spring despite several coaching moves on offense — the addition of offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, offensive line coach Jim Harding and wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield, plus the shift of longtime assistant Aaron Roderick to quarterbacks coach and Dennis Erickson from co-coordinator to running backs coach only.
“We think our staff is structured very well right now,” said Whittingham, who added that the transition has been smooth.
The Utes will still run a spread offense but have some new twists and elements that Christensen had added.
Getting some of those things polished up is part of the plan this spring, but as is the case every year, Whittingham said camp isn’t about scheme, it’s about fundamentals and techniques.
“The main thrust and the main focus is to make everybody better fundamentally and technique-wise and find out who your players are,” he said.
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