The quarterback position, many argue, may be the most import position in sports. Hockey’s goaltenders, soccer’s strikers, baseball’s pitchers and the quarterback all have their place as some of the most vital positions in sports. While this doesn’t take away from the priority of other positions played in respective sports, a bad quarterback can truly turn a good team upside down. The University of Utah football team is no exception, and so, with our preview of the 2018 season underway, we start at the top.
Last season, the Utes’ quarterback corps was mostly centered around play from sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley. Huntley studied under Troy Williams, who led the Utes to a 9-4 campaign in 2016. As a sophomore, Huntley won the starting job over Williams, en route to a 7-6 season, starting in 10 games and missing the other 3 due to injury. Huntley would go 6-4 in that span, throwing 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. This is not the greatest of TD-INT ratios by any means, but he did have the third-highest completion percentage in the Pac-12 among starters, landing 63.8% of his throws. This stat, however, may be inflated due to Utah’s focus on the run game, centered around sophomore standout running back, Zack Moss, who notched a 1,000-yard season last year.
Surprisingly, Utah’s offense has centered less around the quarterback position in recent years. Last season, while Moss put up 1,173 yards at about 5.5 yards per carry, Huntley rushed for 537 yards, second to Moss in total rushing yards. While Huntley passed for 2411 yards over the course of the season, getting 2,000 total rushing yards out of a running back/quarterback group is no small feat to ask. A goaltender’s job is not to score goals, which is why the quarterback has such a high value in offensive schemes. In 2012, Utah implemented a run-option offense – an offense in which the quarterback can hold the ball and run, if the defense’s linebackers focus on the running back.
This guessing game is what differentiates NFL talent from quarterbacks in college football, as this type of offense would be seen as ahead of the curve 10 years ago. The Oregon Ducks, coached by Mark Helfrich, utilized this offensive strategy on their run to the National Championship in 2015. They wouldn’t win every game, but destroying the Florida State Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl was a huge indicator that this “option offense” was the stuff of the future. Now, teams across the country are adopting this offensive scheme in an effort to outsmart an ever-changing defensive alignment.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham utilizes this option offense and the dual threat that Huntley brings with remarkable efficiency. While rushing for the second-most yards, Huntley also completed 63.8 % of his passes, good for 3rd in the Pac-12. Remember, this production came from a quarterback who only played 10 of 14 games due to injury.
Thankfully, there is some competition in the quarterback room, thanks to the recruitment of four-star recruit Jack Tuttle. Coming out of San Marcos, CA, Tuttle is arguably the Utes’ best quarterback prospect since Alex Smith. An illustrious high school career and high rankings as a pro-style quarterback, Tuttle came to the U with not much else to ask in his resume. According to 247Sports, Tuttle ranks 8th in pro-style quarterbacks, 25th overall in players out of California and accumulated several all-team selections.
Whether or not Tuttle will start under center for the Utes rests, arguably, on Huntley’s ability to keep the starting job. Competition can often drive production, but noise in Huntley’s — or Tuttle’s — head can distract from the ultimate goal of the program: winning.
Around the Pac-12, we see that Huntley and Tuttle are one of the stronger quarterback duos of the conference. With the drafting of USC’s Sam Darnold, Washington State’s Luke Falk and UCLA’s Josh Rosen, three of the top four QB’s from last season are no longer in the mix of quarterbacks. Jake Browning of Washington and Manny Wilkins of Arizona State will most likely be Huntley’s, or Tuttle’s, fiercest competition. As far as starting/backup tandems, however, there is no reason why Utah should not have the strongest group in the conference. USC is now relying on freshman JT Daniels and redshirt sophomore Matt Fink. UCLA is relying on a carousel of Devon Modster and Matt Lynch, but they do have incoming freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson, who has high expectations for his plays, just like Tuttle. Washington has standout passer Jack Browning, but with the transfer of K.J. Carta-Samuels, their backup spot is noticeably vacant, and none of their four prospects have seen any live action at the college level. The Utes have three non-conference games this season, against Weber State, Northern Illinois and BYU, but in at least 10 of the Utes’ 13 games, —bowl game not included— the advantage lies with Huntley. It is reasonable to see how facing Browning, Wilkins and Colorado’s Steven Montez can leave the opposition with a stronger passer, but that is also attributed to the weapons these QBs have up their sleeves.
As we move from group to group in this series, we see that each school has its strengths and weaknesses. The Utes are coming off of a 3-6 in-conference record, so on a general level, the Utes are heading into a season with relatively low expectations from outside sources and a strong quarterback group that could win them some close games. The Utes went 2-1 in 2016 in games decided on the last drive/play, so the goal is not to rebuild completely here. The Utes have a solid foundation under center, and with Tuttle’s development, the Utes can depend on their quarterbacks to deliver— game in and game out.