The unknown soldier: Ratliff comes out of obscurity to start for the Utes

He’s a complete unknown. The BYU coaching staff has virtually no film on him, and even most die-hard Ute fans know precious little about their new starting quarterback.

In place of the injured Brian Johnson, Brett Ratliff takes center stage on Saturday in the biggest game of the year for both the Utes and Cougars.

“I’m not trying to look at it like that. I’m trying to look at it like any other game-just go in and be prepared and ready to play and ready to take over the offense,” Ratliff said.

While Johnson’s transition into Utah’s spread offense was a relatively seamless one-due in part to the fact that he ran a version of the offense in high school-it may be a different case for Ratliff, who is known as more of a pocket passer and has considerably less experience running the option. “Brett Ratliff is a different style of quarterback than Brian Johnson is and we’re going to have to tailor some things around him and adapt,” U head coach Kyle Whittingham said.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 195-pound Ratliff was a star at Butte College during his first two collegiate years, setting a school record with 41 career-touchdown passes and earning all-conference honors during his sophomore campaign.

He arrived at Utah late for fall camp after transferring from Butte, forcing him to learn an already difficult offense even faster than usual. “It took a little bit, but once I started getting more and more reps, the better I got it,” he said. “Right now, I have a full grasp of the offense, and I’m really comfortable with it.”

Ratliff typically gets 25 to 33 percent of the reps during practice and has some experience playing against the first-team defense, but his workload has been greatly increased in practice this week. Ute offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said that, while his weekly reps are valuable, they aren’t nearly enough to prepare a backup for the full load.

“There’s no way that taking a third of the reps in practice can simulate what he’s going to go through on Saturday when he takes the opening snap against the BYU Cougars,” Ludwig said. “Now we’re counting on him to draw back from his junior college experience.”

While at Butte, Ratliff was a drop-back passer who operated primarily out of the pocket, a stark contrast to the Utes’ various formations, which take full advantage of Johnson’s strengths.

“He’s a little bit more of a pro style player than Brian,” Ludwig said. “He doesn’t have as much of the speed and spread option background. But he was brought here because he fit the role.”

Though Ratliff admittedly has different strengths and weaknesses, he says he is fully prepared to take on the brunt of the Ute offense.

“I’m not afraid of tucking the ball in and running. I actually like doing that. Whatever the situation is, I’m ready for it, whatever comes up,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to move away from anything we have been doing.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ludwig, who insists that he won’t change a thing when calling the plays and devising the game plan for the Cougars. “We won’t change at all,” Ludwig said. “You can’t change. We are who we are.”

However, the team has tried to keep its game plan under wraps as much as possible, as all practices were closed this week and coaches, understandably, won’t go into much specific detail about their plans for this week. What they will say is that Ratliff is handling his new responsibilities well.

“We’ll focus on the things that he does well and that we feel we can attack the opponent with,” Ludwig said. “He’s doing a nice job. Handling the workload, and the players are responding well.”

As for Ratliff himself, he is confident that he can step in and take over the offense and that the Utes can give the highly favored Cougars a game.

“I’m excited. I know it’s one of the biggest rivalries in the nation,” Ratliff said. “I’m a player. I come to play, I’m a gamer. I think of myself as a leader, and I think I’ll be able to lead the team to a great game.”

His teammates may not have seen him much in game situations, but they will have to rally around him this week, no matter what style of football they are used to.

“Brett has a strong arm,” tailback Quinton Ganther said. “We have confidence in him, and now it’s time for him to step up and show what he can do.”

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