Utes hope return of QB Travis Wilson means a return to bowl game
Quarterback Travis Wilson was injured last year and it looked like his career might be over. But he’s back this season and Utah is hoping he can help turn around an offense that was one of the Pac-12’s worst last season.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Utah Utes at a glance
Last year: 5-7 (2-7, fifth in Pac-12 South).
Coach: Kyle Whittingham (75-39, 10th year at Utah).
Leading lights: QB Travis Wilson, WR Dres Anderson, RB Devontae Booker, RB Bubba Poole, DE Nate Orchard, DB Eric Rowe.
Key stat: Utah’s defense had just three interceptions last season, tied for the fewest in the nation.
The schedule: With such a tough road slate, the Pac-12 opener at home against Washington State might be Utah’s most important game of the year.
Change has been a constant for Utah since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, and the Utes can only hope for a change in luck at quarterback this season.
If the Utes are to make any inroads in the Pac-12 South, junior Travis Wilson will have to stay healthy. Not since 2008 has a Utah quarterback made it through a season unscathed.
“Without a doubt. It’s a quarterback-driven game,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “If you have a guy that pulls the trigger and can make plays for you at a high level, you can have a chance every week. This conference is loaded with them.”
Wilson was named Monday the Utes’ starting quarterback, winning the job ahead of Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson. Late last year, it appeared that Wilson’s career might be over after he suffered a concussion against Arizona State, after which further tests revealed a pre-existing head-trauma condition.
He was cleared to play before the start of spring practices and impressed teammates over the summer.
“He looks like Hercules right now,” senior receiver Dres Anderson said. “He’s very good, he’s strong, he’s confident. He’s coming back and trying to prove he’s a leader on our team.”
Wilson threw for 1,827 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season, and led the Utes to their biggest upset ever at home — a 27-21 victory over No. 5 Stanford.
At that point, Utah was 4-2 and appeared to finally find its footing in the Pac-12. The Utes, though, lost five in a row after that (and lost their quarterback) before closing out the season with a victory over Colorado.
At 5-7 overall (and 2-7 in the Pac-12), Utah missed out on a bowl game for the second straight season.
“We’re determined to get ourselves back on track this year and get things headed back in the right direction,” Whittingham said.
To end that, more change was in the thin air there for the coaching staff.
Whittingham replaced co-offensive coordinators Dennis Erickson and Brian Johnson with former Washington walk-on Dave Christensen, a longtime coordinator under Gary Pinkel at Missouri who compiled a 27-35 record the past five seasons as the Wyoming head coach. Christensen is Utah’s seventh offensive coordinator in Whittingham’s 10th season.
Christensen is tasked with improving an offense that ranked among the worst in the Pac-12 last season in total offense (11th), scoring (10th) and turnover margin (11th).
“Dave’s come in and done a great job transitioning,” Whittingham said. “His philosophy is very much in line. That’s going to be the biggest difference for our players.”
Meanwhile, Erickson, the former Seahawks coach, was demoted to running backs coach. At 67, he enters his 44th season as a coach.
“I don’t care about titles,” Erickson told The Deseret News. “I just want to contribute, help us win, move the football and be around the players. That’s fun for me. That’s entertainment.”
The schedule doesn’t do the Utes any favors. They travel to Michigan on Sept. 2 and have Pac-12 games at UCLA, Oregon State, Arizona State and Stanford (plus Colorado). That trip to Stanford comes a week after a Nov. 8 home date against Oregon, the toughest back-to-back there is in the conference (and perhaps the country).
“We were close last year. Nobody cares about being close,” Whittingham said. “You’ve got to get over that hump. … It’s very important for us to get back on track and play ourselves into a bowl game.”
Adam Jude: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org