In hindsight, the clues were there. The adjectives gave it away. Utah’s returning senior starting quarterback and senior captain Troy Williams’ performance during the preseason was “fine” in the eyes of the coaching staff, but true sophomore Tyler Huntley’s athleticism made him “electric.”
Despite the subtle hints and the fact that the Utes quarterback competition remained an open competition through more than three weeks of preseason camp, Monday’s announcement that Huntley won the starting quarterback job still came as the most surprising news of the preseason.
“I feel like I could go out there, make a lot of plays, help us win a lot of games,” Williams said following the team’s intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 12. “We have big expectations this year. Of course, everybody is sleeping on us. That’s not nothing new, but we know what we have here. I feel like I could go out there, especially with the offense we have now, and make a lot of plays and just open a lot of eyes.”
Huntley described his relationship with Williams as “best of friends” at the start of camp. The two quarterbacks roomed together on road trips. Now, the two will reverse rolls. Huntley served as Williams’ backup last season as Williams started all 13 games. Williams now takes on the backup role, while graduate transfer Cooper Bateman will be third on the depth chart.
Huntley has adapted well to first-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s offense. Huntley and former high school teammates Zack Moss, the projected starter at running back, and Demari Simpkins, one of the contenders to start at wide receiver, have all said Taylor’s offense more closely resembles the offensive system they all thrived in at Hallandale High School in Florida.
“I see more things clearly now,” Huntley said during camp. “The game slowed down a lot for me, and it just feels good to be out there and know what I’m doing.”
Huntley by all accounts seemed more confident this preseason. He cited a full year in the program, his increased dedication to film, a better grasp of the speed of the game as well as being more comfortable with the playbook as reasons.
“It’s more of a playbook where we just go out there and make the plays,” Huntley said. “The plays are there. You’ve just got to make them. I think everybody is comfortable in making those plays.”
Last week, the Utes selected the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Williams a team captain for the second consecutive season. However, the Utah staff seemed to become enamored with Huntley’s athleticism and the strides he made under Taylor.
A potential playmaker: Huntley completed 5 of 7 passes for 60 yards without a touchdown or an interception as a true freshman last season for the Utes. He also rushed nine times for 15 yards and a touchdown. He rushed for 23 yards and one touchdown in the Utes’ win over Indiana in the Foster Farms Bowl, and he also completed a season-long 36-yard pass in that game. … Huntley entered the program in he winter of 2016 coming off of winning the 2015 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year award at Hallandale High School. In four years as a starter, he passed for 9,053 yards and 106 touchdowns and posted a 34-10 record. He led Hallandale to the 5A regional finals for the first time in school history as a senior.
“From the spring until now, he’s almost a different guy,” Taylor said last week of Huntley.
Huntley, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound former Florida High School Gatorade Player of the Year, played in four games as a true freshman. He attempted just seven passes (5-for-7, 60 yards). Huntley played a key role in the Foster Farms Bowl victory over Indiana to end the season. He rushed for 23 yards and one touchdown and also completed his only pass attempt for 36 yards.
“The thing that’s most evident is decision making in terms of I think he had a tendency to force the game a little bit because he’s so athletic,” Taylor said. “In the spring, [he tried to] make every play a big play. You’ve got learn when you’re athletic and you’re competitive that sometimes you’ve got to throw the ball away and live to play another down, and he’s done a much better job of that. Accuracy, understanding the system [have improved]. Obviously, as you have more success you become more confident and when your confidence is high, you play well.”
The Utes went 9-4 last season and averaged 216.7 yards per game passing with Williams guiding the conference’s 10th-ranked offense in pass efficiency.
This offseason, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham hired Taylor, the architect of a record-setting high school offense at Folsom High in California which produced University of Washington star quarterback Jake Browning. Taylor spent last season as the co-offensive coordinator for Eastern Washington. EWU led the FCS in passing yards per game (401) and ranked third in pass efficiency as well as scoring (42.4).
“We’ve been running the heck out of the ball for a lot of years,” Whittingham said at the start of camp. “The last three years in particular, we haven’t gotten over the hump. We’re coming up short, and we’ve got to be better in throwing the football. That’s [Taylor’s] forte. That’s his area of expertise. That and quarterback development.”