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It’s a new season, but the Utes’ challenge remains the same

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I had gotten to know (Dennis Erickson), and I respected and admired him. My father thought a lot of him, too. That was part of it. He used to say, ‘That guy knows what he’s doing. – Kyle Whittingham, Utah Utes head coach

Another season, another offensive coordinator, another change to the offense — yep, must be the University of Utah football team. The Utes, who open the season Thursday night against Utah State, spent another off-season trying to fix their chronically gimpy offense, as usual.

Head coach Kyle Whittingham, a former all-conference linebacker and defensive coordinator, the son of an NFL linebacker and NFL/collegiate defensive coordinator, the brother of another all-conference linebacker, has defense in his blood. He’s spent his professional career trying to stop offenses; now he must find a way to make an offense go, or rather find someone who can do it for him. So far, that hasn’t panned out.

The Utes have struggled on offense and has lagged behind the defense for the most part (see accompanying chart). They ranked 109th and 105h in total offense the last two seasons, respectively, and haven’t cracked the top 40 since their unbeaten Sugar Bowl season in 2008.

“Each year brings new challenges, a new set of circumstances,” says Whittingham.

Or the same ones.

The offensive slide seems to have begun with the departure of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the graduation of quarterback Brian Johnson in the 2008 season. Whittingham has tried just about everything to fix it — namely, six offensive coordinators in eight years, or five in the last five. Last season he hired the youngest offensive coordinator in the country, the 24-year-old Johnson. This season he has hired one of the oldest, pulling 66-year-old Dennis Erickson out of retirement.

It is the second time Whittingham has sought outside help. In 2011, he hired Norm Chow, a former national Assistant Coach of the Year who was once considered the hottest coaching commodity in the country. The Utes ranked 109th in total offense in one season under Chow, and then he left to accept a head coaching job at Hawaii (for what it’s worth, in the last five seasons, Chow’s teams — UCLA, Utah, Hawaii — have ranked 111th, 88th, 100th, 109th and 118th in total offense, respectively).

So now comes Erickson, a pleasant, relaxed man who has held 16 different coaching jobs since 1969, including head coaching positions at Idaho, Wyoming, Washington State, Miami (where he won two national championships), the Seattle Seahawks, Oregon State, the San Francisco 49ers, Idaho again and Arizona State.

Twice in the last decade Erickson has spent a year out of coaching only to return to the sideline. Fired by Arizona State at the end of the 2011 season, he helped coach his son’s high school team in Oregon occasionally.

After Utah’s continued offensive struggles last season, Whittingham found himself with another coaching vacancy when defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a left for Wisconsin. He decided he could fill the vacancy with another offensive coordinator, but only if he was an exceptional coach.

“If no one stood out, I’d hire a defensive coach,” he says. He contacted Erickson in December.

“I had gotten to know him,” says Whittingham, “and I respected and admired him. My father thought a lot of him, too. That was part of it. He used to say, ‘That guy knows what he’s doing.’”

For his part, Erickson says, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to get back in it. I just got through a year without coaching. I was trying to do TV stuff and that didn’t work out. But I knew I missed football. I’m 66, and I thought if I’m going to get back in it, it better be now.”

It must have been a delicate issue to sell the idea to Johnson, a promising young coach in whom Whittingham publicly and privately expresses great confidence.

Says Johnson, “We met after the season and went over what we did offensively. We felt like bringing in Coach Erickson and having his knowledge would be a great thing, and I’d get to learn from him.”

“When you have a chance to get Dennis Erickson, you take it,” says Whittingham.

Erickson will have the final say on offensive decisions, but will have input from Johnson. “Brian is outstanding,” says Erickson. He coaches like he plays, which is extremely well.”

To listen to Johnson and Whittingham, the offense’s issues might be as simple as a quarterback. Ask Johnson what the Utes’ biggest problem has been, he says, “Keeping quarterbacks healthy. I was the last quarterback to play the whole season. Quarterback is the most important position in all of sports.”

Since Johnson graduated in ’08, the Utes have had four players start at quarterback — Jordan Wynn, Terrence Cain, Jon Hays and Travis Wilson, who will start for the Utes this season.

“It’s such a quarterback-driven game,” says Whittingham. “If you don’t have that guy, you’ll struggle.”

Erickson has said from the beginning he wants to return the Utes to the spread offense roots of their glory days a few years ago, but with faster pace.

“We’re going to run shot gun, no huddle and keep it simple and fast and do what we do well,” he says. “We have five or six running plays we do well out of all formations. Our strength is the offensive front and tight ends.”

Asked how many points he expects the Utes to score, he says, “thirty (per game) would be a good number. With the fast-paced offense we’re going to be doing it would be a disappointment if we weren’t up around there.”

Anyway, these are the latest plans and hopes for rekindling the Ute offense as another season begins.

EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com