What is Kyle Whittingham thinking?
He says his first order of business in spring practice has been to dump the spread offense — or most of it — and trade it in for a new system.
Dump the spread? Utah IS the spread offense. Does John Mayer give up his guitar for a set of bongos? Does Mac give up laptops to make radios?
Since Urban Meyer brought the spread offense to Utah in 2003, the Utes have enjoyed what has easily been the greatest era of football in school history. In eight years — two under Urban Meyer and six under Whittingham — the Utes have won 80 games and three conference championships, played in eight bowl games (winning seven, including two BCS bowls), finished in the top four of the national rankings twice and the Top 25 five times and produced two unbeaten seasons.
The spread has done for the Utes what singing did for David Archuleta. The spread has been so good to the Utes that after Meyer's 12-0 season in 2004, everyone started employing the spread offense. It was as if they discovered cold fusion. The "spread" spread like wildfire.
And now Whittingham is moving on to something else — to a West Coast offense. He's going retro. He wants more of a "downhill running game." The quarterback will play under center "a lot more." They will use two-back sets. They'll pound it out on the ground more, but the quarterback won't be running as much.
Whittingham also went out and signed his fourth offensive coordinator in six years, Norm Chow, a respected but well-traveled offensive coordinator who stopped for a cup of coffee (so to speak) at UCLA before moving to Utah.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Wrong. Whittingham is making a daring move, but if you talk to him about all this change, he practically yawns.
"We're always trying to make ourselves better," he said. "You've got to be a moving target. You can't be complacent. Defenses catch up with offensive schemes."
You've got to hand it to this guy. He's got guts. He's not standing pat. And if you listen to him, he'll convince you it's time for a change. For one thing, his quarterback, Jordan Wynn, is wrong for the spread. For the spread to work, the quarterback must be a running threat; otherwise, the defensive ends pinch and crush the running back like a grape. Wynn is more of a drop-back quarterback, and he's happy to return to an offense that is similar to his high school scheme.
"We've got a quarterback in Jordan who can benefit from a little bit of the West Coast flair in the offense," says Whittingham. "His skills are more geared toward the West Coast. The quarterback-run element is such a huge part of what makes the spread go. With Jordan, that's not his strong suit."
And then there is this fact: Look at the chart accompanying this column. The Utes' spread attack hasn't been as effective as you might be led to believe by their won-loss record. They've ranked among the top-20 scoring offenses only twice during the eight-year spread era. Even that is misleading, since they racked up many of their points against relatively weak Mountain West Conference opponents. Against two ranked opponents — TCU and Boise State — late last season, they managed seven and three points, respectively. In between those games, they scored just three points against Notre Dame. They will face formidable defenses on a weekly basis now that they are in the Pac-12 Conference.
"The last half of the season we weren't very effective," he says. "That was one of the reasons — lack of productivity. We're just looking for more consistency."
So the Utes will change — or adapt. As Whittingham puts it, "We haven't entirely scrapped the spread. We're adding some West Coast principles."
This begs a couple of questions:
Whittingham says, "There is certainly more of a physical presence to West Coast offense." But can the Utes go toe-to-toe in the Pac-12 with a running game and pro-style offense?
And do the Utes have the running backs needed for the new offense? There are three of them and none has a Division I carry to his credit. Harvey Langi graduated early from Bingham High to join the Utes this spring. Thretten Palamo is a 22-year-old converted professional rugby player who hasn't played football since high school. John White is a highly rated junior college transfer.
Despite those formidable challenges, Whittingham is moving ahead with the new offense.
"My first responsibility is to the program," he says. "We have to do what in my judgment is going to benefit us."
Utah's spread offense era
The spread offense era at the University of Utah under Urban Meyer (2003-04) and Kyle Whittingham (2004-2010).
Year. . .Record. . .Conf. finish. . .Ranking. . .Scoring off. nat'l rank/ppg
2003 10-2 1st 21st 42nd/28.7
2004 13-0 1st 4th 3rd/45.3
2005 7-5 4th ---- 36th/30.0
2006 8-5 3rd ---- 33rd/27.9
2007 9-4 3rd ---- 68th/26.2
2008 13-0 1st 2nd 15th/36.9
2009 10-3 3rd 18th 34th/29.6
2010 10-3 2nd 23rd 23rd/33.1