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Gordon Monson: Could Utah have two starters at quarterback?

(Photo courtesy of University of Utah Athletics) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising.

Utah is still searching for its starting quarterback, or so it has been said. There have been three names in the pot, but Kyle Whittingham said one will soon be tossed away — maybe it already has been — leaving just the pair of finalists, although he also is unwilling to name names.

Bets are on Jake Bentley, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, and maybe Cameron Rising, a sophomore transfer from Texas.

Bentley is experienced, having started 33 games in the SEC. Rising is a greenhorn who has the advantage of having sat in the press box alongside Andy Ludwig during games in a redshirt year last season, sponging up everything there is to absorb shadowing the man who makes the Utes' offensive decisions.

Either could be seen as an edge.

Nobody wants to tip his hand as to who the starter will be or who even has the lead. Whenever Whittingham is asked about it, as he was a day ago, he stammered around as though he had been asked for a national security code. Such secrecy has done nothing but stoke the fire of curiosity.

Inquiring minds want to know.

A bigger question: Does Whittingham himself know?

It was George Orwell who said: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

Suspicions about that abound. Why would Bentley transfer for his final season to Utah if he didn’t get a chuckle and a wink from Ludwig and Whittingham regarding his opportunity here? Making matters more compelling — Bentley recently was voted in by the team as one of the Utes' team captains. Whittingham said that means absolutely nothing about who will start. But does it? Players usually know who among them is the best on the field. On the other hand, maybe they’re guessing, too. Or perhaps Bentley is just a tad more popular among his 'mates. Rising, nobody’s idiot, has worked hard, studied film and immersed and imagined himself in a starter’s role.

So, what’s it going to be?

Who’s it going to be?

Another question: If Whittingham and Ludwig really don’t yet know, is the race close enough that it’s too tight to call? Which is to ask, can they both be used as starters?

Conventional wisdom not only says no, it says hell no.

There are exceptions, in college and the NFL, but usually within structured roles. What the Saints have done, for example, with Drew Brees, a certain Hall of Fame inductee, spiced with Taysom Hill is one example, and there are others. Brees is a gifted passer. Hill a runner. The Ravens did that for a short period with Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Quarterback Jake Bentley runs some plays during spring practice, Tuesday March 3, 2020

The possibility we’re talking about here is something different, something highly unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it never could work. It’s akin to coaches going with the hot hand. Play the quarterback who on any given week gives you the best chance of winning, either because of the way he’s practicing or the way he played the week before, in the eyes of Whittingham and Ludwig. Bentley and Rising are not the same quarterback, but their diversity doesn’t lean quite so sharply as the earlier examples.

A quick survey of coaches and players who would know mostly agree that platooning is a tricky proposition and that’s the reason the two-quarterback formula is rarely used at the sport’s higher levels.

But it could work, if the rare circumstances are right.

Former Utah and Weber State head coach Ron McBride responded to the proposition in the negative:

“I don’t like it. It cost us a couple of games when I was coaching at Arizona. We’d be playing really well, put in the next guy and we’d go backwards. In my experience, taking turns doesn’t work. What the Saints have done with Brees and Hill — it fits what they need done. In that case, it helps. But most guys need reps to get in a rhythm. Taking them out and putting them in messes that up.”

Another prominent offensive coach who preferred not to have his name used in commenting on Utah’s situation put it this way:

"I hate playing multiple quarterbacks, unless you truly aren’t sure which one is best. Even when it’s close between two guys, I believe in making a decision and sticking with it until you’ve allowed for a large enough body of work to make a quality decision whether to stick with him or make a change.

“If you play two guys, it’s hard for either QB to get in a rhythm. Not to mention the rest of the team. I also believe even when you stick with a guy who’s struggling a bit, you demonstrate to the next guy up that you’ll have his back in tough times when it’s his turn, and that he’ll be able to play through the inevitable mistakes that young QBs make. Playing with a short leash does not create confidence for the QB or for the team in general.”

UTAH VS. ARIZONA

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Riley Jensen, a former Utah State quarterback who now works with the Aggies on the mental aspects of competition, said understanding the psyche of playing that particular position is important.

"As scientific as we like to make it — with statistics, arm angles and footwork, there is quite a bit of art to the position. In other words, feel is an important aspect. If a QB is constantly worried that he isn’t ‘hot’ enough to be in the game, it is sometimes difficult to get hot. Sometimes it takes a couple of series to get a grip on what is happening, and then he’s off to the races.

“There’s also a leadership component to it that is sometimes threatened by playing the two-man game. In essence, “no man can serve two masters.” If the players don’t know who to look for in the clutch, and have to make added evaluations in the middle of a game as to who is leading them, it can use up unnecessary bandwidth.”

Riley added: “As LaVell Edwards used to say, ‘If you have two quarterbacks, you really don’t have one.’ Coaches can help by bestowing leadership on the QB.”

That last observation calls even more attention to Utah’s players selecting Bentley as a captain. It’s been done before, though, among the Utes where a quarterback who ended up not starting was selected as a captain — Troy Williams — but if the team thinks a quarterback is a leader, why wouldn’t they want him to start?

There’s also the notion that it’s difficult and, in many cases, unlikely that just a single quarterback will make it through an entire season without injury, thus causing coaches to hold their backup in reserve, without diminishing his capabilities in front of the rest of the team.

He may not start, but even in a shortened season he might have to finish.

So, maybe the original question — who’s the secret starter? — isn’t as significant as we like to make it. Maybe the real question is, who will be the finisher?

And right now, not Whittingham, nor anyone else, has any clue about that, and won’t for some time to come.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.
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