If anyone wondered whether Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham genuinely would empower his latest offensive coordinator, the answer came Monday.
The Utes named sophomore Tyler Huntley as their starting quarterback in a move that completely reflects Troy Taylor’s influence. Nothing about the pick of Huntley over Troy Williams, a returning starter and co-captain as a senior, could be viewed as conventional in Whittingham’s program.
And that’s a credit to Whittingham, entering his 13th season on the job. He obviously has reached the stage of being willing to try something different in his effort to win the Pac-12 South title for once, and that means giving much more control to his offensive coordinator in scheme, tempo and personnel matters.
Even with the variable of a new offensive approach, the choice of Huntley has to register as the most surprising preseason quarterbacking development in the state’s college football history. What move even comes close? BYU’s strategy of alternating Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps in the 2010 opener vs. Washington is in the discussion, but that was more like a non-decision than a decision, and it was temporary. Utah State’s pick of freshman Chuckie Keeton in 2011 was mildly surprising, but he didn’t replace a returning starter.
We’ll all claim to have seen this coming, right? The dots are connectable regarding Huntley, I’ll say that much.
During the Big Sky Football Kickoff in Park City, Eastern Washington coach Aaron Best — who worked with Taylor as the Eagles’ offensive line coach — pointed out how the QB run game was a major element of Taylor’s offense. Huntley is a dynamic runner.
Whenever he was asked about Huntley’s development, Whittingham praised him for being not nearly as reckless in the passing game, compared to practices during his freshman season.
While endorsing Williams’ work in camp, Taylor clearly was fascinated by Huntley’s athletic ability. And I remember what Best said about Taylor: “You talk about an eclectic, out-of-the-box mindset, he’s got it, times two.” That explains why he would be willing, even eager, to make this pick.
Even so, I pictured the in-house conversation coming down to Taylor’s having to be talked out of picking Huntley, with Whittingham overruling him and sticking with the incumbent starter. That didn’t happen. The potential bonus is Huntley’s keeping the job for the next 39 games, but there’s no way Whittingham would make such a choice just for that reason. His track record clearly would suggest a conventional choice of a senior.
So the Utes have deposed the last QB in the country to have beaten USC, after Williams directed three consecutive touchdown drives in the second half in September. He led the Utes to a 9-4 record and almost beat Washington, his former team, amid his shortcomings in other defeats. In any case, he’s now the No. 2 quarterback, and the guy who wears No. 1 is QB1.
Huntley will be fun to watch, potentially for three years. He’s a parting gift from former assistant coach Dennis Erickson, who opened the program’s Florida pipeline, and Huntley should produce all kinds of numbers in Taylor’s scheme.
What we know for sure is that eight months after being hired to replace Aaron Roderick, and before even calling a play in a game, Taylor already has made significant impact on Utah’s program. If I could revise The Salt Lake Tribune’s annual list of the Most Influential People in Utah Sports, published Sunday, I would include Taylor in the top 25.
I wouldn’t move Whittingham from No. 2, though. The QB announcement is evidence that he’s evolving and improving as a head coach, ceding some power to his staff in an effort to make Utah more influential than ever in Pac-12 football.