Spirits were soaring, and Tyler Huntley had no doubt. No burden of doubt. He was bursting with confidence, cocksure that the Utah offense, under his direction, was on its way to not just being adequate, no, no, no, no, it would be absolutely all-fired awesome. He was convinced of it.
Asked to rate the upcoming Ute offense on a scale from zero-to-10, 10 being most explosive, zero being what everyone around here had come to expect from a Utah attack whose primary task had seemed in the ragged past to be protecting the defense, not putting it in tough spots, he answered like this:
“We’re going to be a 10. We’re not going to be just Pac-12 explosive, we’re going to be nation-wide explosive. When you turn on SportsCenter, you’re going to see the Utah Utes on there.”
That wasn’t at practice yesterday.
It was after a spring scrimmage in April, 2016, back before Huntley had ever played in a game for the Utes. He was a skinny freshman then, one of three quarterbacks trying to win the starting job.
And yet, he had the swagger, the bravado, the bearing of a senior QB who already had been crowned.
That’s what and where he is today, three seasons later, two of those spent as the starter, on the threshold of commencing his final go-round at leading the lesser half of Utah football. And he’s as sure now as he ever was that the Utes are on the edge of something big, something memorable, something worth watching, and that the offense will not drag anchor on a defense that is projected to be one of the program’s all-time best.
Thus far at his last preseason camp, Huntley has stressed that he’s learned — and determined to follow — the demands and instruction of new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, that he intends on being a complete quarterback, a maestro, not a singular trumpet player in the brass section, not one who too often hears only his own music inside his head, depending on his own athletic ability to churn yardage.
That mental aspect of truly leading an offense, even one that’s bound to run the ball more than pass it, is a big deal for Huntley. He plans on showing his maturity, his command of the attack in its entirety, getting the ball where it’s supposed to go — whether that means simply handing it off to Zack Moss or lining up under center, initiating play-action and firing spirals to Britain Covey, Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua. He aims to freely spread the ball around, finding balance in an offense that may not be equal in the aforementioned run-pass ratio, but rather will pose a threat to hit any and all quadrants on the field.
Whether the Utes pass the ball a lot or a little, especially the latter, the veteran will have to be efficient, completing pass plays and extending drives on, say, 3rd and five, after run attempts are sniffed out by defenses and stopped.
To do that, Huntley is fully aware he must read and recognize situations properly, make his way through his progressions, and on occasion still utilize his athleticism to keep defenses guessing.
As for that last part, Huntley said he has put on 25 pounds — and he wants to put on five more — since his injury last season, one that interrupted his previous ascent, with the goal of staying healthy and making more plays.
“It makes me more durable,” he said. “You can take more hits.”
Asked if those gains have impeded his quickness and elusiveness, obvious positive qualities in his game, Huntley said: “I’m not going to lose that.”
Instead, he said he’s going to “continue to eat.”
“I started eating four full meals before noon every day. I’m pretty tired of it. [But] I wanted to get ready for my senior year and end it off right. I feel strong.”
It’s early, but he’s looked strong, too.
“It’s always easy to just come out here and work,” he said. “That’s what we plan on doing every day.”
The lofty expectations for this Utah team — picked as it is to win the Pac-12 — will be fulfilled only if contributions come from all corners. That’s a given. But no corner is more important than the one that touches the ball on every offensive play, every offensive possession.
Making correct decisions will be every bit as significant as the escapability and the arm strength of a quarterback who already could fling passes deep before he started waking up in the middle of the night to pound a couple of protein shakes.
It will be meaningful to the Utes for Huntley to stay healthy this season — even with a capable backup in Jason Shelley — with the intent to keep the offense consistent. It’s been a while, tracing back to when Brian Johnson ran the show, since Utah has had the kind of commander on the field with the presence to guide it when that was all that was necessary and rescue it when that was called for.
It’s Huntley’s opportunity this season to be and do that for a team that has the capacity, if fully realized, to achieve something extraordinary, to be seen on SportsCenter, spirits soaring, winning games and, ultimately, lifting a Pac-12 championship trophy.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.