Kragthorpe: Dennis Erickson is just what the Utah football offense needs

By Kurt Kragthorpe

The Salt Lake Tribune

Published: February 11, 2013 12:42PM
Updated: May 21, 2013 11:32PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Now that the Utah Utes have co-offensive coordinators with an average age of not quite 46, coach Kyle Whittingham finally may have gotten it right.

A composite character of Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson seems perfect for the job of reviving Utah’s No. 105-ranked offense. The reality is they’re two people who have to coexist in an ego-driven profession, but this arrangement certainly should work.

After criticizing the provincial, inexperienced makeup of Whittingham’s 2012 staff, I can only endorse someone with Erickson’s credentials. This guy knows offensive football. He can only help in solving the issues that have hovered over Utah’s program, with this qualifier: Whittingham has to let him do his job.

Whittingham deserves credit for trying to fix his mistake of promoting Johnson; he also merits blame for not managing that position very well. In the four-plus years since the unappreciated Andy Ludwig moved on after the Sugar Bowl, five Ute coaches have had “offensive coordinator” in their titles: Dave Schramm, Aaron Roderick, Norm Chow, Johnson and now Erickson.

Chow may have proved to be the answer, but he left after one season to become Hawaii’s coach and the Utes remained stuck near the bottom of the Pac-12 offensively. Quarterback Jordan Wynn’s injuries of the past two seasons color any judgment of both Chow and Johnson, but what became clear during the 2012 season is that Johnson needed help.

Erickson, who turns 66 in March, still loves to coach. Having been fired from Arizona State, he spent last season working with the offense of the Oregon high school team that his son coaches. Whatever baggage Erickson would bring to another head coaching position is irrelevant in this case. He should thrive in a position where running the offense is his only concern.

These moves should accomplish what Chow’s hiring was intended to do, giving Johnson a veteran teacher. Amazing, how one coach with Erickson’s background changes the Ute staff’s dynamic. None of Utah’s other eight assistants has worked for a program in another power conference and only two have even coached at other Football Bowl Subdivision schools. As I once wrote, “If this works, [Whittingham] will have revolutionized the coaching profession.”

Well, it didn’t, and he didn’t, judging by the first losing season of his eight-year tenure. So you had to know that more offensive changes were coming. Whittingham creatively filled his staff vacancy by moving Ilaisa Tuiaki from offense to defense, bringing in Erickson and yet not ruining Johnson’s career trajectory, giving him a partial demotion in advance of his 26th birthday this week.

Much like BYU’s Bronco Mendenhall with Brandon Doman, Whittingham misjudged Johnson’s readiness for the coordinator’s job. The irony is that Mendenhall (Northern Arizona) and Whittingham (Idaho State) gained experience as defensive coordinators at lower-level schools, yet they did not require Doman or Johnson to have the same degree of training for a middle-management position that involves more than merely calling the plays on Saturdays.

In contrast, Erickson is way overqualified, to Utah’s benefit. Even if it’s been more than 30 years since he practically invented the one-back offense, he’s still an innovator who knows how to move the football against Pac-12 defenses.

In terms of his head coaching career, Erickson’s life was never the same after he left Rice-Eccles Stadium with a 35-14 victory over Utah in October 2011. Arizona State stood 5-1 with a No. 22 ranking, only to have its season crumble with a series of blown fourth-quarter leads in November.

That’s how Erickson became available to Utah. More than a year later, he’s arriving just in time.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.comTwitter: @tribkurt