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SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah sent shock waves across the state when it announced the starter at quarterback for the 2017 season would be true sophomore quarterback Tyler Huntley.
Huntley will become the Utes' third new day-one starter in the last three years. The Florida product replaces last year’s starter and the offseason favorite to retain the starting job, Troy Williams.
Williams won nine games in his first season with the Utes, transferring from Santa Monica College, including wins over rival BYU and Pac-12 South foes USC and UCLA. Now, he’ll sit and watch Huntley from the sidelines as Utah takes on North Dakota at Rice-Eccles Stadium a week from Thursday.
Since joining the Pac-12, the Utes have always had the defensive personnel to compete with the top teams in the conference, as evidenced by holding USC to just 24 points in their 2012 conference debut. The problem, then, is the same problem that has plagued the team since its inaugural season playing among college football’s best. The Utes didn’t have the offense and, most notably, the quarterback to compete.
Jordan Wynn started the 2011 season for the Utes before going down with a shoulder injury the fourth week of the season. Wynn was replaced by Jon Hays, who finished the season as Utah’s starter before being replaced by freshman Travis Wilson midway through the 2012 season.
Wilson remained Utah’s QB through the 2015 season, while transfer Kendal Thompson occasionally replaced the four-year starter in the lineup.
Despite occasional bright spots, most notably productive performances in wins over USC in Salt Lake City by both Wilson and Williams, the Utes' QBs have left a lot to be desired, especially compared to their Pac-12 counterparts. Since joining the Pac-12, 11 of the conference’s quarterbacks have been drafted into the NFL, but none of them came from Utah.
It’s been a common refrain from the media and fans alike that Utah has the defense to compete, it’s just missing the playmaker at quarterback to win games on late drives. Utah lost to an inferior California Golden Bears team last year at the goal line when it failed to punch the ball in from the goal line.
But with the appointment of Huntley as Utah’s lead signal caller, the lack of a leading man at QB can no longer be an excuse for why the Utes fall short of winning a Pac-12 championship.
Truthfully, Williams played well enough for Utah to win the South division last year, with the Utes' four conference losses coming by a combined 19 points. Two of the losses came on final plays of the game. Utah has now opted for the younger Huntley, picking him as the better player to run new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s system over the proven winner in Williams.
Williams was at one point one of the most highly rated QBs in the country before committing to Washington but losing out in a positional battle to a fellow underclassmen. The Utes' third-string QB, Cooper Bateman, is one of the most highly rated QBs in Utah high school history, committing to Alabama before returning to Utah as a graduate transfer.
While the Utes' previous string of QBs may have lacked the overall top end talent to compete at QB with the USCs and UCLAs of the Pac-12, this depth chart for the Utes ought to be able to hold its own, especially with a defense loaded with future NFL talent.
That’s not to say the Utes should be favored to win the Pac-12 South this year. USC has more talent on both sides of the ball and likely the best QB in the country in Sam Darnold. But Utah’s talent at QB shouldn’t end with the senior seasons of Williams and Bateman. Next year, if everything goes according to plan, Huntley will be returning as Utah’s starter with a season under his belt, with Jack Tuttle, Utah’s most highly regarded offensive recruit, joining the team as a backup, should he hold true to his commitment.
Since joining the Pac-12, it seems an explosive offense, with a dynamic playmaker at QB, has kept Utah from truly competing for a conference title. Now, having unseated a nine-win caliber starter for a younger, more athletic option, the lack of capable options at QB can’t be Utah’s reason for not climbing over the hump.