Brad Rock: Key to Utes is keeping quarterbacks healthy

Published: Saturday, April 5 2014 11:10 a.m. MDT

Travis Wilson passes the ball while warming up for a University of Utah Football scrimmage in Salt Lake City, Friday, April 4, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Travis Wilson passes the ball while warming up for a University of Utah Football scrimmage in Salt Lake City, Friday, April 4, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Everything looked fine with Utah quarterback Travis Wilson at spring practice this week, which was a relief to all. After his head injury was discovered last season, people worried. Most of all they’ve been concerned about his health.

Now that he’s apparently OK, they’re free to worry about other things like, oh, the Utes.

Heaven knows quarterback problems and football disappointment have gone hand in hand for the last quarter century. No wonder the team has six quarterbacks listed on its spring roster, with two more expected this fall. If history is any indication, the Utes will need them all.

“I think everyone is trying to build as much depth as they can — it’s the most important position in football,” says Utah quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick.

It’s not just injuries that have vexed the Utes over the years; it’s performance. Both Mike Richmond and Jason Woods started at quarterback in 1990, and both struggled with injuries and consistency. Brandon Jones began the 1995 season, but was replaced by Mike Fouts. Soon to come was the Jonathan Crosswhite/Darnell Arceneaux era.

As for “name” quarterbacks, there have been few: Brian Johnson, the 2009 Sugar Bowl MVP; Alex Smith, the No. 1 draft pick in 2005; and Scott Mitchell, who became an NFL starter after leaving in 1989. Brett Ratliff (2005-06) won two bowl games.

But according to research by Ute fan Doug York, decadeslong QB frustration at Utah isn’t imaginary. At the same time, it’s not terribly unique. A study commissioned by assistant coaches Johnson and Roderick after the 2012 season tracked the moves of 120 Division I schools. They found that a given team has only a 30 percent chance of surviving a season using just one quarterback. The study included both injuries and unproductive play that caused changes.

“In this day and age, playing 12, 13 games with the same quarterback is hard to do,” Roderick says.

In 1989, Mitchell was Utah’s undisputed signal-caller, having led his team to a shocking 57-28 win over BYU the previous fall. But near the end of the next season he got injured and Richmond took over.

Utah promptly lost 70-31 to BYU.

Richmond and Woods shared snaps the next year, but Utah finished just 4-7.

Frank Dolce came on in fall camp to win the starting spot in 1991, rather than Richmond or Woods. Utah went 7-5. However, the next year Dolce was hurt in two separate games and Mike McCoy started in his place against UTEP, a loss. The Utes went 6-6.

McCoy, now the San Diego Chargers’ coach, was the uninterrupted starter in 1993 and 1994, a rare occurrence. It worked fairly well, too, with Utah going 7-6 and 10-2, including its first bowl game in 30 years.

Brandon Jones started the 1995 season but was replaced by Fouts in a 7-4 year. The next season Fouts started all year and Utah went a respectable 8-4.

But that was it for a while, because then came the Arceneaux Apocalypse. The injury-prone QB split time with Crosswhite for two seasons, then shared a year with TD Croshaw. Arceneaux got injured again in 2000 and was replaced by Croshaw, who was replaced by Lance Rice. Utah finished that season 4-7.

Breaking the trend, the Utes had the same starter all of 2001: Rice. They went 8-4. But in 2002 the job went to Brett Elliott, who was briefly replaced in a game by Alex Smith — thus wasting the future NFL starter's redshirt year. Coach Ron McBride was fired after a 5-6 season.

Elliott was hurt in the 2003 opener, and Smith made the most of it, starting all the next two years and leading Utah to 10-2 and 12-0 seasons. A theme was emerging: Keep your starter, increase your wins.

Johnson, a sophomore, was hurt near the end of the 2005 season, but Ratliff took over, beating BYU and then Georgia Tech in the bowl game. Ratliff started virtually all of 2006, though Tommy Grady logged occasional minutes. The relative stability got Utah an 8-5 record, including a bowl win.

Johnson came off his redshirt year in 2007, only to get injured in the first game, necessitating the introduction of Grady. But Johnson played most of the year, as Utah went 9-4.

Johnson’s most healthy year was 2008, when he started every game and the Utes earned their second BCS bowl in five seasons. But Terrance Cain started the 2009 season, only to be replaced by (imagine breaking glass) Jordan Wynn, who became a symbol of Utah’s shattered quarterback hopes. It began smoothly enough, as Wynn led Utah to a Poinsettia Bowl win in 2009. But he kept getting hurt, and the next year Cain was ineffective in the bowl loss to Boise State.

Yet another Wynn injury ushered in the arrival of Jon Hays in 2011. He was a competitive but overmatched reserve. But he was all they had. Thanks to Hays’ toughness and offensive coordinator Norm Chow’s expertise, Utah got a Sun Bowl win.

Wynn went down for good in the second game of 2012, so Hays finished up the 5-7 season. Last year Wilson hurt his hand, then bowed out after a pre-existing intracranial injury was discovered. Clean-up work was handled by Adam Schulz in another 5-7 year.

In the majority of 10-win seasons or better (1994, 2003, 2004, 2008), the Utes had stability at quarterback. Utah did win 10 games in 2009 and 2010, using both Cain and Wynn, but uneasiness prevailed. It has only grown since.

So if the Utes start the 2014 season with as many quarterback as coaches, they can’t be blamed. Quarterbacks are like punch at a party. It’s one thing you can never allow to run dry.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

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