Utah hired Gary Andersen as an assistant football coach, hoping he would improve the defensive tackles' techniques, help coordinator Morgan Scalley devise schemes and counsel Kyle Whittingham in his operation of the program.
A year after Andersen suddenly walked away from his job as Oregon State’s coach, the Utes have received all of those contributions from him, plus an unexpected benefit: His defensive tackles have made two interceptions, one more than Scalley’s safeties or Sharrieff Shah’s cornerbacks through five games.
The defense’s biggest, slowest players with the meatiest hands have been making athletic plays lately. And if not for Pita Tonga’s losing the football out of bounds on his way toward the end zone against Washington, the linemen would have matched cornerback Jaylon Johnson’s touchdown of last weekend at Stanford. Hauati Pututau’s interception against the Cardinal gave the defensive tackles another takeaway as the latest effect of Andersen’s coaching.
Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of Andersen’s midseason exit from Oregon State, an unorthodox act in the profession — rivaled only by his move from Wisconsin to OSU in the first place. Andersen has not elaborated on his decision of last October, other than saying that in every case, he has gone “where I’m supposed to be” and “I wouldn’t change anything.”
And now he’s back at Utah, where he played in the 1980s and was an assistant coach for 10 years in two stints. He worked as Whittingham’s defensive coordinator in 2008, when the Utes went unbeaten, before he became Utah State’s head coach. Andersen remains the only coach of a nonconference opponent to have beaten the Utes in their Pac-12 era via USU’s overtime win in 2012. His personal 16-game winning streak as a Ute staff member ended with last month’s loss to Washington, though.
“He’s been a huge addition to our staff,” Whittingham said Monday. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best defensive line coaches in the country … and a huge help to both Morgan and myself, just as a sounding board, a guy that has a lot of experience and knowledge. It’s been exactly what I envisioned it would be and hoped it would be.”
Andersen views his role as associate head coach as trying to “take anything off [Whittingham’s] plate that I can,” he said. “Anything he needs. At the very beginning, when we started this thing back in January, it was any time he needs something from me, I’ll be there to help him go through it. We all know what gets on tour plate – sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s right in the middle.”
Andersen remains unpopular in Corvallis, Ore., where the Utes will play next season (they missed OSU in the Pac-12's scheduling rotation for 2017-18). The Gazette-Times this week summarized the view of his impact by saying former coach Mike Riley “left the cupboard kind of bare, Gary Andersen reduced the cupboard to kindling and [Jonathan] Smith is stepping on the splinters.”
The Beavers have beaten only FCS members Portland State and Southern Utah in two seasons and are in danger of going winless in Pac-12 play for the third time in four years.
Andersen, made available to the media last week in Utah’s format of having one offensive and one defensive coach speak on Tuesdays, expressed happiness with his job description after nine years of directing his own programs.
“Love it, love it,” he said. “Yeah, like I always say, to be around the kids, to be in that [meeting] room, I'm lucky to have the kids I get to coach. … They're awesome to be around.”
They’re playing well, even beyond the bonus of those interceptions. With the asterisks of having faced Weber State without running back Josh Davis, Washington State without any degree of interest in running the ball and Stanford without Bryce Love, the Utes rank No. 3 nationally in rushing defense. Andersen’s linemen have applied some pressure to opposing quarterbacks and occupied blockers so that linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton can make tackles.
The linemen like playing for Andersen, who jokes around with them outside the meeting room. Once inside, though, “It’s straight to business,” Tonga said. “When coach Andersen speaks, everyone’s quiet, everyone’s focused, everyone’s ready to learn. It’s just an all-business environment.”
And what he’s teaching is succeeding, once they get on the field.
PAC-12 PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Utah’s 40-21 victory at Stanford earned the Utes two Pac-12 player of the week awards. Kicker Matt Gay (special teams) and cornerback Jaylon Johnson (defense) were honored after receiving Utah’s nominations, although coach Kyle Whittingham said defensive end Bradlee Anae was the “in-house player of the game” for his two sacks and a forced fumble. Gay kicked field goals of 48, 49, 34 and 37 yards. Johnson’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown was the third such play in Ute history. He also made seven tackles.
Utah vs. Arizona
Friday, 8 p.m.