Three-horse race

The Utes have been here before. Their fans have been through it. Writers and radio hosts have debated it for hours on end. And it’s happening all over again. All eyes are under center as three quarterbacks are vying for the starting job, with one month for coaches to determine who leads the troops when the team takes the field Sept. 2 against UCLA.

Three years ago, there was a three-way battle between former starter Lance Rice, upstart junior Brett Elliott and a young kid by the name of Alex Smith. Eventually, Elliott won out, as many expected, only to get injured and give way to Smith, who handled himself more than adequately. And so all that depth and all that competition paid off, after all.

The Ute coaching staff-which has to decide between Brian Johnson, Brett Ratliff and Tommy Grady, not to mention Kevin Dunn, who will be waiting in the wings-hopes to take advantage of that competition once again when fall camp starts up.

“I’m sure it’s going to be very intense. It’s a situation where all three quarterbacks who are in the running are fierce competitors, so nobody’s going to back down,” said U head coach Kyle Whittingham.

Of course, there are other factors involved with the decision-making process. It’s not just who outplays whom this August, but who is actually healthy enough to be out there in the first place. Johnson, after all, is still recuperating from surgery on the torn ACL he suffered late last season in a loss to New Mexico. He wasn’t able to fully participate in spring ball, but was cleared for summer conditioning and hopes to test out his rebuilt knee this month.

“I think it’ll take me one or two practices to get me back in the flow of things, but once I do that, I think I’ll be fine,” said Johnson. “Hopefully I’ll get to be live a couple times and get hit a couple times and see how I respond.”

With Johnson out of commission in the spring, Ratliff-last year’s replacement QB who led the Utes to two huge upset victories over BYU and Georgia Tech-took the lead in the race for the starting job, building off his late-season success and taking firm control of the offense.

“It’s definitely going to be pretty intense. We’ve been battling, just when we go out to throw, just competing against each other,” said Ratliff. “It’s just going to be that much more when we come into the season and when we come into fall camp.”

In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sports world, Ratliff is front and center in the eyes of many Ute fans. It’s impossible to disregard the two emotional victories that came largely on the strength of his arms and legs. But then there’s Johnson, who was in the top five in the nation in total offense before getting hurt-and that was in just his first year at the helm.

And, of course, no one who has ever seen Tommy Grady throw a football can count him out, either. The cannon-armed former Oklahoma quarterback is the prototypical signal-caller-he’s got the size (6-foot-7) and the arm strength to make any throw, and Whittingham said Grady is “as talented a quarterback as I’ve ever been around, in terms of arm strength and physical attributes.”

It’s not an easy decision, no matter which way you look at it-no matter who starts, someone else is going to have to take a back seat. And the team’s plan is to redshirt one of the team’s quarterbacks simply to save eligibility.

“That is our plan-it makes no sense to burn eligibility on all four of our quarterbacks,” said Whittingham. “That makes no sense at all-we have every intention to redshirt one of the four.”

But those who want to make predictions as to who will or won’t start this fall may have to wait until they-and the team-see how Johnson’s knee reacts once he gets on the field. Were he completely healthy, he might even be the favorite to win the job because of both his experience and his performance one season ago. But the health of his knee puts everything in limbo-for now.

“The wild card in the whole deal is Brian’s knee. We’re not going to take any chances with that knee,” said Whittingham. “If it’s not absolutely 100 percent ready to go, it doesn’t make sense to do anything but err on the side of caution with him-he’s got that redshirt year and such a bright future ahead of him. What we don’t want to do is play him too soon and have a setback with that knee and impact his future.”

Even Johnson himself, while anxious to get back on the field, feels the need to proceed with caution.

“I’m just worried about being healthy first, because I think once I’m healthy, I’ll be able to do everything that I can and be the player that I was,” Johnson said.

Johnson has thrown some with his receivers and has been training all summer, but getting back to live action is a whole new ballgame. As of right now, however, he seems happy with his current rate of progress.

“I’m feeling pretty good?I’m getting better every week, so I’m looking forward to being close to being completely healthy,” he said. “I really don’t expect anything out of (the QB competition). I think we’re all capable of being really good quarterbacks, and I’ve just got to go out there and practice hard each day-do the best you can.”

And so the stage is set-the young but experienced phenom, the late-season hero or the uber-talented unknown? One of the three will be calling plays for the Utes this fall.

“Everybody’s really hard competitors. It’s going to be a battle to get that spot,” Ratliff said. “We all want it, and I think we all deserve it, so it’s going to be a hard decision for the coaches; and may the best man get it.”

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