A decade or so ago, when publishing executive Freddie Whittingham figured he would help his daughter earn extra credit in her high school civics class by making a career-day presentation in northern California, he never could have known he someday would be working for the teacher.
He just knew Troy Taylor was hitting him with some interesting questions, not the kind of stuff an average football fan would ask.
Now that Taylor is Utah’s offensive coordinator and Whittingham is the tight ends coach, the questions are getting tougher and the testing curve is becoming steeper. Ute coach Kyle Whittingham, Freddie’s older brother, said this in a less threatening way than it may sound. Yet his update of the offense in Taylor’s second year on the job nicely summarized the expectations inside and outside of the program.
“I’ll tell you, we’re way ahead — as we should be; we’d better be — of where we were at this point last year,” Whittingham said.
The real checkpoints will come soon enough: Washington in September, Stanford and USC in October and Arizona State and Oregon in November, with each opponent having beaten the Utes in 2017.
This time, Taylor is supposed to have some answers for those Pac-12 defenses. “He’s a perfectionist and is highly competitive, which is exactly what we need,” Freddie Whittingham said.
Taylor likely became the first football coach in Ute history to discuss educational psychology and “the neurology of it” as he stood on the practice field one afternoon last week, making a point about how his offensive players naturally should perform better with more experience in his scheme.
“At first, you're just trying to learn the guys' names,” Taylor said. “And then you're trying to figure out what their strengths are, how you can coach them, because they're all different. You've got to know your learners. … Their comfort level in terms of knowing the offense is huge.”
The short version of the science: Having to process too much information on the field is not healthy.
“Your prefrontal cortex has got all this stuff going on, and you're not going to play fast,” Taylor said. “I want to shut that down and play with the instinctive part of the brain.”
Good thinking. After going 3-6 in conference play last season, the Utes are picked second in the Pac-12 South. Contending for the program’s first division title would require an upgrade of the offense’s performance, a logical progression in the second season of Taylor working with junior quarterback Tyler Huntley. That’s certainly what Taylor expects of himself in his first job as a Power Five coordinator, having thrived in one season at Eastern Washington after a highly successful run as co-head coach at Folsom High School.
“Even when I coached undefeated teams, I felt like we had to improve and get better,” Taylor said. “I learned a lot. … There's a lot of things that I've adjusted. I've got to step up my game. You want the players to be better; I've got to be a better coach.”
The numbers say the Ute offense regressed last year, after a 2016 season when Kyle Whittingham, who's known for demanding a lot of his staff, fired offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. The Utes averaged 413.4 yards in Taylor's first season, compared with 430.7 in the second (and final) year of Roderick's second stint as Utah's play-caller.
UTAH’S OFFENSE — BY THE NUMBERS
2016 • 430.7 yards per game (51st in FBS), 5.78 yards per play, 41 touchdowns.
2017 • 413.4 yards per game (52nd), 5.64 yards per play, 40 touchdowns.
“If something’s not working, we’ve got to adjust,” Taylor said. “I take that very seriously, take it personally.”
The Ute offense slumped during an 0-4 month of October, when Huntley missed two games due to injury and looked rusty in his return. Yet the trend of November was encouraging enough for Whittingham to say the offense was “heading in the right direction” after wins over UCLA and Colorado, with close losses to Washington State and Washington in between.
Huntley is promising more production in 2018. “Just being in the offense for two years,” Huntley said, “you feel confident, you know the checks, you know the different looks you're looking for in the play and coach Taylor's doing a great job of just communicating to the quarterbacks. … I can't wait to get on to the second year, and we're going to see the difference.”
That’s the plan for Taylor’s offense in 2017, involving less thinking and more scoring.