Flexibility, adaptability and the means to take advantage of a defense’s weakness. Any offense would aspire to these things, and Utes offensive coordinator Troy Taylor refers to each as virtues of his system.
Perhaps Exhibit A for Taylor’s offense comes in the form of the run-pass option. The RPO, a staple of the offense, represents one of the latest variations on an old-school idea.
The triple-option gave the quarterback the responsibility of reading the defense and deciding whether to hand to the fullback on a dive, keep himself or pitch to the halfback. RPO takes the next step and allows a signal-caller like Tyler Huntley the freedom on the fly to turn the play into either a handoff or play-action pass.
As Utah concludes spring practice with its annual Red-White Game in Rice-Eccles Stadium at 11 a.m. Saturday, the RPO play serves as a reminder that the past few weeks have been as much about returning players reviewing and fine-tuning as a vehicle for acclimating new players or players stepping into new roles.
“You can’t hang in there and kind of throw the ball downfield, and he learned that,” Taylor said about Huntley. “You’ve got to pull it and throw it. You can’t scramble around. Early on, [Tyler] was kind of doing that. He’d make plays and sometimes there would be guys downfield. It’s a rhythm thing.”
Huntley, who won the starting job last summer in preseason camp, proved he can make big plays both with his arm and legs (294.8 yards of total offense per game). However, he also ran into some of what Taylor called “ambiguous looks” from the defense caused indecision on RPO plays .
Huntley’s desire to make a big play coupled with indecision left his linemen hanging out to dry on occasion.
“They’ve got to hover at three yards, so they can’t just scream downfield hitting people,” Taylor said. “They’ve got to get a feel. That took them a little while, but they’ve got a good feel. You want to keep the aggressiveness of the run block, but you want to be able to pull ball and throw the RPO.”
Huntley has exuded confidence this spring with a season as the starter and a calendar year in Taylor’s offense under his belt. Huntley said following practice Tuesday that the offense could be ready to play an actual game this week.
The Utes could simplify the RPO by making some calls automatic based on defensive alignment. However, Huntley has appeared more decisive and comfortable with the defensive looks he gets.
“I feel like that plays a major role in our progression, being able to identify what we need to do and identify the type of defense our defense is playing and just executing what plays are presented to us,” Huntley said. “
Aside from the offensive line, the player on the field most affected by Huntley’s decision on RPO plays is running back and 1,100-yard rusher Zack Moss. The high school teammate of Huntley’s said he has played with him long enough to have a sense of when Huntley’s going to give the ball to him or pull it back and throw a pass.
“I’m reading [the defense], too,” Moss said. “We are taught to have different looks from the D-line to the backers to the corners to the safeties. We understand when we can get the ball and when we can’t get the ball. We’ve done better this year at switching calls up and letting us know firmly when we’re going to get ball on those type of plays.”
Taylor’s preference remains to always err on the side of handing off the ball to the running back. Of course, the attraction of the RPO plays is that they force the defense to defend the entire field, and it’s the epitome of the phrase “taking what the defense gives you.”
The RPO plays are designed to attack the most vulnerable areas of a defense. Huntley’s decisiveness and confidence play a crucial part in achieving that goal.
“This year we’re working on just to get it out quickly, not a lot of the scramble drill stuff,” Utes redshirt freshman wide receiver Bronson Boyd said. “We’re working on either throwing or just handing it off, one of the two. He’s done a pretty good job with that this spring, so we don’t have to do the scramble drill. Tyler knows what he’s doing this year.”
Where • Rice-Eccles Stadium
Event schedule • West lot opens for tailgate parking, 6 a.m.; MUSS Game, 9 a.m.; Alumni Game, 10 a.m.; Red-White Game, 11 a.m.