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Dick Harmon: Utes' investment in Dennis Erickson already paying off

Published: Friday, Sept. 13 2013 7:35 p.m. MDT

Utah's  Dennis Erickson, Co-Offensive Coordinator at University of Utah football practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City.  
 (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Utah's Dennis Erickson, Co-Offensive Coordinator at University of Utah football practice at Rice-Eccles Stadium Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, in Salt Lake City. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

Call it the mark of The Mechanic.

Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson has wasted no time making his mark on the Utes' football team. With only spring ball, fall camp and two wins in the books, the hired gun has already been worth it. His worth will manifest itself again when the Utes host Oregon State for a Pac-12 showdown Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

A member of the collegiate nomad ranks, Erickson has made his way from coast to coast and a myriad stops in between. I first met Erickson 27 years ago when he coached at Wyoming. Back then, the thing that stood out most was his demeanor. He’s a cool, friendly guy.

Hired to fix, smooth over, connect, uplift, focus, teach and project confidence, Erickson has done all those things with the Ute offense.

Look no further than the development of sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson. A year ago he was like most freshmen — a little erratic and lacking a little confidence. He threw some untimely picks last fall, and his decision-making was hampered by Utah’s inability to establish a consistent run game.

QB Travis Wilson and new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson confer during the Red-White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (, Laura Seitz, Deseret News) QB Travis Wilson and new co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson confer during the Red-White game at Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (, Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

However, Erickson has settled down the young Californian.

Proof is in Wilson's efficiency.

Against a good Utah State defense, he had a respectable 174 efficiency rating. Against a struggling Weber State defense, he had a sizzling 242 rating. While the Beavers come to town with a myriad injuries and a defense that’s struggling, if Erickson gets Wilson to produce a 140 rating or higher, the Utes should win easily.

And I think Wilson will do it. Easily.

Why?

Wilson will face better defenses and his efficiency might suffer, but his ability to focus, read defenses, and work through progressions is night and day. Mix that with better protection and injuries on the OSU defense, and he'll get 140 or higher Saturday night.

Utah Utes quarterback Travis Wilson (7) throws against Utah State Aggies  during NCAA football in Salt Lake City  Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Utah won 30-26.  (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) Utah Utes quarterback Travis Wilson (7) throws against Utah State Aggies during NCAA football in Salt Lake City Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013. Utah won 30-26. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Thank Erickson. He "mechanic-ed" it.

Wilson ranks No. 7 in the nation in passing efficiency, ahead of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (193.0) and Utah State's Chuckie Keeton (175.0), mainly because of that Weber State game.

But the fact is, he’s putting up numbers.

Most teams pad stats against an opponent like Weber State. OSU’s talented Sean Mannion opened up against Eastern Washington, a team the Beavers inexplicably lost to, but he completed 86 percent of his passes for a 191.5 rating.

Manziel, suspended for half of his opener against lowly Rice, ended up guiding his team to a 52-31 win with a eye-popping 297.5 rating. The next game he faced Sam Houston State in a 65-28 laugher and had a 173.1 rating.

Wilson's numbers should not be discounted any more than Manziel's. No, I'm not saying he is Johnny Football, but his numbers are no more inflated than the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

So, there are ratings boosters and there are rating boosters. You can’t knock Wilson for doing exactly what he’ s supposed to do after two games. And that’s due to Erickson getting him on track, utilizing good protection, and finding targets.

Thing is, Wilson is there in the ballpark after two games and looks far more comfortable doing it than a year ago.

The early look at how any quarterback is doing, progressing and performing in the pass game is how efficient he is.

Wilson’s biggest tests will come when he takes his game on the road — away from the comfortable confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium. He’s had the luxury of opening this season with three home games, but he’s taken advantage of the first two and will do the same come Saturday in the third.

The biggest upside to all this, albeit it at home, is his confidence.

And that is a direct result of Erickson.

This week’s picks:

Alabama 38, Texas A&M 24: A&M's questionable defense is the difference and Johnny Football can't make up the difference this time.

Oregon 45, Tennessee 14: Look for the Duck attack to befuddle the talented Vols, who like trench warfare.

Ohio State 34, California 21: Look for Urban Meyer to teach Cal’s freshman QB a few lessons.

UCLA 24, Nebraska 21: If Wyoming almost beat the 'Huskers, why can't the Bruins?

Wisconsin 21, Arizona State 17: This will be a smash-mouth game and the Badgers win it in the trenches and with superior defense.

Notre Dame 28, Purdue 21: Big in-state rivalry game and the Fighting Irish rebound after Michigan loss. Though it's only been 12 months, it seems like a long time ago since Manti Teo’s fake girlfriend "died" this past week.

Mississippi 34, Texas 17: Two key Texas figures got roughed up in Provo and the Longhorns must prove they can defend up-tempo.

Colorado 17, Fresno State 15: Look for the Buffs to hold home-field advantage and project a more manly demeanor than a year ago.

USC 21, Boston College 17: Let’s put it this way: Lane Kiffin better find a win.

Washington 38, Illinois 34: Steve Sarkisian has the Huskies in a good place.

Utah 37, Oregon State 21: Defensive issues make it easier for Utes to etch out first Pac-12 win of the season.

Last week: 7-4; Overall: 12-8 (.600)

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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