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NCAA Football Utah Utes

Can Dennis Erickson Get the Utah Offense Up to Speed?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

College football offenses these days have three speeds: fast, really fast, and Oregon. If a team doesn’t pick up the pace and adopt a more up-tempo offense, it will, quite literally, get left behind. The Utah Utes fell behind in 2012 due to a combination of coaching and injuries, and after two disappointing seasons in the Pac-12, head coach Kyle Whittingham hired veteran Dennis Erickson to bring new life to the offense.

The Utes’ offense was among the best back in the Urban Meyer days, but the team went through five offensive coordinators in the last five seasons. By 2012, the turnover took a toll, leaving the Utes ranked 105th in total offense (11th in the Pac-12).

Utah’s offensive coordinator, Brian Johnson, took some of the blame, but Whittingham got at least as much criticism for hiring him. The youngest OC in the country, just 24 years old when he was hired, Johnson is a former Utah quarterback turned quarterbacks coach who was vaulted into the coordinator role — probably too soon — when Norm Chow left for Hawai’i.

To help the Utes’ find their footing as they head into year three in the Pac-12, Whittingham astutely decided to hire Erickson as “co-offensive coordinator.” (Make no mistake, Erickson, not Johnson, will be the one in charge of the coordinating.)

Erickson brings much-needed Pac-12 experience to the Utah coaching staff. Whittingham has only had one head coaching job — Utah. Erickson has won Pac-10 or Pac-12 Coach of the Year at more universities than that.

In just two seasons at Washington State, he coached the Cougars to their first bowl game since 1916. He spent four years at Oregon State, leading the Beavers to their first winning season in 29 years. And while he was fired from Arizona State at the end of the 2011 season, his tenure there started out strong, with the Sun Devils winning a share of the Pac-10 title.

Now Erickson, who helped develop the spread offense that is so popular today, has been tasked with reviving the squad that ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in passing offense last season. It will help to have a quarterback stay healthy for the whole season — something the Utes haven’t had since Johnson was on the field — but injuries aside, will the Erickson-Johnson experiment work?

Spring football isn’t an accurate measure of progress, but the offenses in the Utah spring game showed improvement, running many more plays, for more yards, than the 2012 offense. (The Red and White team offenses combined for 797 yards.)

Erickson has a depth and breadth of knowledge (not to mention championship hardware) that Johnson can only hope to acquire. Johnson probably understands the current offense and personnel, better than anyone; he ran it last season, but he’s been immersed in it since 2004, when he was the team’s freshman back-up quarterback.

It might be unusual, but the combination of a weathered veteran, on what could be his last job, and a bright but very young offensive mind may just be a winning mix for Utah.