All week long University of Utah coaches and players refused to say who their starting quarterback would be for today's season-finale against BYU. Would it be Jason Woods or Mike Richmond?
Ute coach Ron McBride said he'd decide early in the week on a replacement for Frank Dolce, the team's season-long starting quarterback who broke his ankle last Saturday. TV cameras were ready to do a live shot of the announcement at Wednesday's practice on Wednesday, but at the last moment McBride changed his mind and said no. He said he had decided on a starter; he just wasn't telling anyone about it. The mystery continued as both quarterbacks took practice reps with the first team. On Thursday, McBride said he wouldn't announce his starter until Saturday morning.Well, here it is, Saturday morning. And the winner? - drum roll, please - Mike Richmond. Ta-dum.
Even Richmond wondered why all the fuss and delay, but McBride explained, "Both quarterbacks are entirely different. One can throw better on the run, one has a stronger arm, one is more mobile. I didn't want to give BYU a chance to prepare for one of them. So I waited until after BYU's final practice."
The irony of today's opportunity is not lost on Richmond. Two years ago he replaced another injured starter, Scott Mitchell, against BYU in Provo and threw for 393 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 70-31 loss. Now here he is again, a fifth-year senior, replacing another injured starter.
"It's a nice way to end my career," says Richmond. "It's where I started my career."
A good game today might salvage something from a disappointing senior season for Richmond, who hasn't played a down this year. As the team's No. 2 quarterback, he undoubtedly would have replaced Dolce last week, but he was injured himself (a back problem) and unable to play. When Dolce went down with the injury against UTEP, Richmond was wearing civilian clothes and sitting in the press box, helping his coaches. Woods, the No. 3 quarterback, trotted onto the field in his place.
The Utes managed to beat UTEP 10-9, and afterward McBride indicated that Woods would probably start against BYU. But after watching Richmond throw on for the first time in a week on Monday, and after seeing that his back condition was improved, McBride changed his mind.
"It was bad timing for me to be out last week," says Richmond. "I've been the backup all year, and then this happens." In Richmond's words, this was just another chapter in a "weird career."
Richmond's career has been marked by injuries, bad timing, bad luck and plenty of waiting. He stood on the sidelines for three years (one as a redshirt) while Mitchell started and starred. When Mitchell left after his junior year to turn pro, it appeared Richmond had it made, but the Utes hired a new coaching staff and Richmond had an injured right shoulder that required surgery in the off-season. Unable to participate in spring practice, he lost the starting job to Woods, a transfer from Lamar. They wound up splitting the job last season, with Woods starting five games and Richmond six (including the BYU game). The Utes changed quarterbacks nearly every week last year, hoping to spark their lifeless offense. Richmond completed 54 percent of his passes, for 1,976 yards, 8 touchdowns and 16 interceptions; Woods completed 44 percent of his passes, for 781 yards, 3 TDs and 5 interceptions.
Richmond and Dolce, who redshirted last season, were the frontrunners for the starting job heading into spring practice, but Richmond missed much of practice because of a sore shoulder. Dolce won the job easily, and played well this season (he completed 177 of 314 passes for 2,444 yards, 16 TDs and 10 interceptions).
"It's been a letdown for me personally this year," says Richmond. "I've been here five years. There have been some weeks when I didn't take any reps in practice. But team-wise we've been having a great year."
Richmond's body might not have endured the daily wear and tear of a starter anyway. Addressing the condition of his arm, he says, "My shoulder hasn't bothered me, but I haven't had the overuse I have had in the past." Back problems surface occasionally; the most recent episode sidelined him most of last week. "I could barely walk after the New Mexico game," he said. "I spent most of the week on my back. It's better now."
The Utes hope that Richmond can reproduce his performance in Provo of two years ago. These days they have a defense to back up 31 points, and they have more than instate pride riding on the outcome. With a win, the Utes could secure a berth in the Copper Bowl (provided Indiana loses today), tie for third place in the conference standings (if Air Force loses to Hawaii) and claim the Beehive Boot.
Richmond has envied Dolce the opportunity to play with an offense that is improved over last season. Keith Williams has rushed for 1,012 yards - the most for any Ute since 1986 - which has taken the pressure off the quarterback. Bryan Rowley has caught 55 passes for 890 yards and 9 touchdowns, averaging 16 yards per catch and turning several short plays into big gainers. Through it all, the offensive line has protected the quarterback better than it did a year ago. Today Richmond gets a chance to see what he can do with such a surrounding cast.