Remember 2008? The good times? When quarterback Brian Johnson used a cast of characters that included Matt Asiata, Freddie Brown, Brent Casteel and others to run a varied offense that drove opponents and even some Utah fans crazy?
Though inconsistent at times — heck, Johnson was even booed occasionally — that offense nevertheless was good enough to notch the Utes an undefeated season. So if it worked once, why not try it again, right?
With Johnson now back in control, this time in the press box and not on the field, the Utes are going back to the future in their offensive design for 2012.
Gone, they say, is the conservative play-calling of 2012. In its place is a renewed spread offense that stresses versatility.
“It’s just about using all of our weapons,” quarterback Jordan Wynn said. “We have a lot of guys who can help us so it’s fun.”
The Utes planned to be more dynamic last year, but that plan was dashed when Wynn suffered his season-ending shoulder injury in the fourth game of the season.
With Jon Hays unable to duplicate Wynn’s passing threat, the Utes were forced to rely on running back John White for offense.
He delivered, rushing 316 times for 1,519 yards to set a school record for most rushing yards in a season.
Utah’s one-dimensional approach was good enough to earn it a winning season and a bowl victory, but Utah coach Kyle Whittingham doesn’t really want to go through another season of the John White show.
Bothering him the most about Utah’s poor passing game was that it translated into a lack of points on the board. The Utes were ninth in the Pac-12, averaging just 25 points a game last year and were last in passing offense, averaging 173.23 yards a game.
“The red zone offense was just average, and the passing game wasn’t anywhere near enough,” he said. “By design we had to play more ball control football, but we need to be more wide open this year.”
Enter Johnson, who believes he can give the Utes enough options to keep defenses guessing, just as he did when he was quarterbacking the Utes.
He is the fifth coordinator to serve since Whittingham took over the program in 2005. While there has been some talk that Whittingham simply can’t find an offense he likes and that impatience has led to some of the coaching turnover, Johnson is confident he can craft a game plan that will win Whittingham over.
“The one thing about the offense is you have to let the personnel dictate what you do,” Johnson said. “You have to utilize every player’s strengths.”
Last year, when Wynn went down, so too did the plans for using Utah’s tight ends and receivers as much as the Utes had hoped.
Now, with not only Wynn returning but also the addition of freshman quarterback Travis Wilson, the Utes believe not even another injury to their quarterback would hurt their plans for 2012.
“We have a lot of depth and a lot of talent,” Johnson said. “Last year we were forced to do some things and we didn’t score a lot of points, but I feel good about our skill positions this year.”
Utah has speed in receivers DeVonte Christopher, Kenneth Scott and Dres Anderson and a solid tight end lineup with David Rolf and Jake Murphy. Also figuring into offensive plans is senior Dallin Rogers at H-back. The senior missed spring ball while recovering from knee surgery but has returned in good shape and could be in for a big year, particularly since the Utes had plans to start Harvey Langi in a two-back set.
With Langi leaving on an LDS Church mission, Rogers should step into that role, Whittingham said.
“He is that type of player who can handle the blocking aspect and catch the football,” Whittingham said.
So how much of Utah’s offense could be classified as a true spread? The Utes maintain the offensive scheme won’t look like a drastic departure from a year ago. Whittingham calls it a “modified spread.”
Thanks to the time they logged in the summer practicing the plays, Wynn said it has been easy even for the new guys to adjust to the new elements Johnson is installing.
“We know it inside and out,” he said. “We’d get out there in the morning and run through the plays by ourselves and it’s showing because there aren’t a lot of mental errors out there right now.”
Tale of two Ute offenses
Per game averages
Category 2008 2011
Passing 244.5 173.23
Rushing 56.5 137.62
Scoring 36.9 25.0
Plays 70.2 62
1st downs 21.7 16.4
Possession 32:21 29:19