The complexion of Conner Manning’s redshirt season almost changed in late November. Utah quarterback Adam Schulz absorbed some tough hits against Colorado and Manning warmed up on the sideline, preparing to play.
Schulz managed to finish the game, enabling Manning to save a year’s eligibility. That’s how close Manning came to playing. Four months later, he might be further away.
Manning’s status illustrates how much the Utes’ quarterbacking picture has evolved since November. When last season ended, Manning became the unofficial favorite for the starting job in 2014. Travis Wilson’s medical condition was uncertain at best, and Schulz had not done enough in Wilson’s absence to secure the position.
But in recent months, the Utes started acquiring quarterbacks from other schools and Wilson was cleared to practice this the spring (with further evaluation to come). Jason Thompson arrived from Wyoming, joining former coach Dave Christensen, who’s now Utah’s offensive coordinator. He’s not eligible until next year, but Kendal Thompson, who’s transferring from Oklahoma, can play in 2014 because he’ll be a graduate student.
So after Utah’s QB depth chart for the next two seasons temporarily included only Schulz, three redshirt freshmen and an incoming freshman, the apparent return of Wilson and the arrival of the two Thompsons have altered Manning’s prospects.
It all seems kind of unfair to Manning. Then again, what was he supposed to do, hope Wilson couldn’t play anymore? And what should Utah’s coaches have done after two losing seasons, try to strengthen the position with Wilson’s status in question or just give the job to Schulz, Manning or another freshman out of loyalty?
In the words of former Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, "It’s Division I football! It ain’t intramurals!"
Manning understands. "I can’t worry about everyone else," he said Tuesday, after Utah’s first spring practice session. "It’s just more guys I’ve got to compete against. Nothing really changes the mind-set — just a couple more guys coming in. It should be fun. It’s good. It’s healthy."
That’s how this stuff works. If Manning’s good enough, he’ll play — whether that’s as a junior in 2016, after Wilson successfully completes his career, or sooner. If he’s genuinely better than the Thompsons, that will be a good sign for himself and Utah.
If not, well, nobody’s going there right now.
Manning is just driven to keep developing. He spent spring break at home in southern California, working on his passing technique with former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia for four days last week. And he can always get advice from his uncle, Peyton Manning.
That’s a myth, which Conner Manning likes to perpetuate. He’s a lifelong Denver Broncos fan, and his tweets about the team usually include "#unclepeyton."
"Some guys actually believe it," Manning said, smiling.
But he’s a son of Steve Manning, not Cooper or Eli. Conner Manning made a name for himself in high school, breaking Matt Barkley’s Orange County record with 4,219 passing yards as a junior in 2011. His ability to make quick decisions and deliver the football fits Utah’s spread offense, although other Ute quarterbacks are better runners. Jason Thompson is working out this spring and Kendal Thompson visited Utah’s practice Tuesday, but that’s getting ahead of the story. For now, Manning is competing with Schulz and redshirt freshmen Brandon Cox and Micah Thomas (who may move to receiver) for the No. 2 job behind Wilson.
"There’s a lot to be sorted out at that position," said Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, citing a need to "thin the herd out a little bit."
That’s a good problem for Utah’s program. Whatever playing opportunity Manning gets, and whenever it comes, he will have earned it.
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