SALT LAKE CITY — The question came straight out of left field. Literally. We were standing in shallow left on the Ute baseball diamond after a football practice, this week. The team was working out there to avoid wear on its regular turf.
I asked Kyle Whittingham if he, like the late, great LaVell Edwards, would evolve from a primarily defensive coach into an offensive guru. Whittingham deftly directed the conversation toward new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor.
“We’re certainly glad Troy’s here and the offense is making progress,” Whittingham said. “We haven’t played anybody yet, so we’ll reserve judgment on how things are going until we get into the season.”
Pardon Whittingham’s wait-and-see attitude. He has employed nine offensive coordinators in 10 years.
“So far, we like what we see,” he said. “The players are working hard and it’s going to be a new-look offense, no doubt about that. It will be a vastly different look from what it’s been.”
Does that mean a productive one? An entertaining one?
“We’ll see,” said Mr. Mystery. “The bottom line is you’ve got to execute, no matter what kind of offense you run. You’ve got to execute, take care of the ball and make plays.”
That indeed would be a change. The Utes were seventh in total offense, eighth in scoring, ninth in passing and 10th in passing efficiency in the Pac-12 last season. They could use some LaVell hot sauce. So they hired Taylor, who has a reputation for these things.
Whittingham admits defense and special teams “have been our M.O., but we’re trying to evolve and find a way to get over that hump, and we think this is one of the ways necessary to do that.”
Which naturally led to an Earth-first question: Will it upset the environment? We were actually talking about the defensive environment Utah has built since Whittingham showed up. The Utes have been obstructing opponents since they came into the Pac-12, having twice finished second in total defense, once third and just once in the bottom half.
If they needed a big play, it nearly always came on defense.
Could improving on offense actually have a negative effect on their defense?
“As long as we’re scoring points,” said defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, “we’re happy.”
Some football analysts worry that scoring too quickly could mean the defense spends more time on the field. But if the offense is constantly going three-and-out, that doesn’t allow much rest, either.
“If we have points on the board,” Scalley said, “we probably can be a little more aggressive. The best defense is a good offense.”
Despite Whittingham’s promise of a remade offense, Taylor has said Utah won’t be throwing just to throw. The plan is to build momentum and variety as they move down the field, then strike quickly.
Taylor says Utah’s traditionally strong defense will be a big help for him because if a team has trouble getting its defense off the field “it really creates a lot of pressure -- almost like diffusing a bomb – you’ve got a feeling like you’ve got to score every time, and that can create a lot of tension. But when you’ve got a great defense, it’s all good.”
Meanwhile, Whittingham addresses offensive production by saying “there’s 101 ways to skin a cat, but you’ve got to do it with execution, fundamentals and technique.”
Must be football season — analogies everywhere.
Everyone agrees something needed to be done. Utah has never finished in the top half of the conference in total offense or scoring. Twice it has finished 12th and twice 11th in total offense.
Quarterback Troy Williams is thinking the new look will change that. Asked what percentage of his overall game has been displayed so far, he said, “I would probably say maybe like 50 percent, 60 percent.”
What if he were operating at 100 percent?
That would be a grand slam over the center field fence.