SALT LAKE CITY — For the University of Utah, things were sweet — real sweet — the last time the Utes had a starting quarterback durable or successful enough to start and finish a season.
It was the 2008 campaign and senior Brian Johnson played in all 13 games, capping an undefeated season for Utah with Most Outstanding Player honors in a 31-17 upset of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Since then, the Utes have split things up — mostly because of injuries to Jordan Wynn. After unseating Terrance Cain for the final five games of 2009, Wynn played in just 16 of the next 38 games that followed over the next three seasons. During that time, three quarterbacks made starts for Utah — Jon Hays (12), Travis Wilson (seven) and Cain (three).
The lack of continuity has been especially costly since the Utes have joined the Pac-12 in 2011. They’ve posted back-to-back losing conference records.
“Quarterback play is so important,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It cannot be overstated. It’s critical.”
As such, the Utes open fall camp this year determined to get some continuity at quarterback — just like in 2008 when Johnson ran the show.
“If we’re going to have a chance to be good that’s got to change,” Whittingham said. “That’s got to happen.”
Wilson headlines a promising cast of candidates to get the job done as Utah seeks to bounce back from its first losing season (5-7) since 2002. He appeared in all 12 games as a freshman, starting the last seven.
“He’s the incumbent. He’s the guy. It’s his job to lose,” Whittingham said. “But there is nobody who is a guaranteed starter. You’ve got to continue to produce and we’ve got some talented players behind him.”
Sophomore Adam Schulz and freshman Brandon Cox also participated in spring ball, while freshmen Conner Manning and Micah Thomas join the mix this fall.
“We’ve got five very talented quarterbacks,” Whittingham said. “ ... It’s a young group, but talent-wise we feel like we’re in as good a shape as we’ve ever been at that position.”
With the Aug. 29 season opener against Utah State drawing near, Whittingham acknowledged that the plan is to trim the primary quarterback reps down to three as soon as possible and then eventually get it down to two.
Here are five storylines to look for at Utah's fall camp:
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Whittingham lured two-time national championship coach Dennis Erickson out of retirement to help “jump-start” an offense that ranked last in the Pac-12 in passing (190.7 yards per game) last season. The 66-year-old Erickson, who took a one-year break after coaching Arizona State from 2007-11, will serve as co-offensive coordinator with Johnson and coach Utah’s running backs.
Erickson’s arrival, Whittingham explained in the Utes’ 2013 season outlook, has the offense gravitated back to “a more traditional spread scheme.”
There’s plenty of room for improvement. A year ago, Utah ranked 11th in the conference with 324.4 yards of total offense and 17.8 first downs per game. The Utes were 10th in third-down conversions (33.5 percent), ninth in rushing offense (133.8 ypg) and eighth in scoring offense (26.7 ppg).
“Dennis Erickson brings a wealth of knowledge and coaching experience to our program,” Whittingham said in announcing the hiring in February. “He has been labeled as one of the original architects of the spread and we are looking forward to the impact he will have on our offense.”
Tragedy hit the Utes hard exactly one week before the opening of camp. A single-vehicle rollover near Cuba, N.M., claimed the lives of three teenagers — incoming Utah freshman Gaius “Keio” Vaenuku, Texas A&M redshirt freshman Polo Manukainiu and 13-year-old Lolo Uhatafe.
Manukainiu and Uhatafe are the stepbrother and younger brother of Utah freshman Salesi Uhatafe, who survived the accident along with his father.
Whittingham and Utah assistants Morgan Scalley, Sharrieff Shah, Kalani Sitake and Ilaisa Tuiaki attended the funeral services in Texas.
Vaenuku and Uhatafe were teammates at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas, and part of the Utes’ 2013 signing class.
An inability to get takeaways and a red zone defense that was “way off the pace” are high on Whittingham’s list of deficiencies from 2012. As a result, he said it left the Utes in a position they’re not used to being in — “average on defense.”
Utah managed just 14 fumble recoveries and eight interceptions last season, something that Whittingham noted might be the Utes’ “main problem overall.” They were 10th in the conference in takeaways, finishing with 18 fewer than league-leading Oregon.
As for red zone defense, Utah ranked eighth in the Pac-12 — giving up scores 83.7 percent of the time.
Tightening things up could be a challenge with holes to fill at both starting cornerback spots and along the defensive line, where NFL draft picks Star Lotulelei and Joe Kruger resided last season.
Defensive coordinator Sitake’s staff has also been revamped a bit. Ilaisa Tuiaki moves over from the offense to coach the defensive line. He replaces Chad Kauha’aha’a, who left to join former Utah assistant Gary Andersen at Wisconsin.
Finding two new starting cornerbacks and developing depth at the position to replace the graduation losses of Ryan Lacy, Moe Lee and Reggie Topps, Whittingham acknowledged, may be the toughest challenge on the team when it comes to personnel.
Although short on experience, Whittingham said the Utes have a lot of talent in the mix. Even so, he noted that the learning curve has got to be very short.
“They’ve got to get up to speed very quickly,” said Whittingham, who added that Utah’s defense relies on great cornerback play.
The Utes open camp with senior Keith McGill and redshirt freshman Justin Thomas sharing the top spot on one side of the depth chart. Juniors Wykie Freeman and Davion Orphey lead the other. Redshirt freshman Reginald Porter and true freshman Hipolito Corporan are listed as backups.
Junior Joseph Smith and senior Michael Walker enter camp battling for the starting nickel job.
If cornerback is the biggest position question mark, Whittingham said it’s followed closely by finding a specialist. He noted that the Utes have “complete rebuilds at both spots.”
On special teams, Utah is looking for a new primary kicker, punter, snapper and kick returner.
At kicker, camp opens with redshirt freshman Andy Phillips atop the depth chart. Jamie Sutcliffe and Jon Halliday share the No. 2 spot. Whittingham, however, doesn’t expect the issue to be settled quickly.
Sophomore punter Tom Hackett, who saw specialized duty behind Sean Sellwood last season and earned Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week honors in his first game, is the front-runner at punter.
Freshman Chase Dominguez tops the chart at snapper.
Sophomore safety and punt returner Charles Henderson and freshman receiver Delshawn McClellon are listed as the top candidates to replace All-American Reggie Dunn in returning kickoffs.