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Utes' hopes tied to a new OC, a new offense and ... the iPhone

SALT LAKE CITY — The most popular man in the University of Utah football camp these days is Troy Taylor, the new offensive coordinator just two years removed from high school sidelines. When practice is finished, two dozen reporters run a zone blitz in his direction.

Maybe no one is on the spot more than the chronically cheerful and enthusiastic Taylor. He is the team’s eighth OC in nine years, but, this time, it’s different: Where his predecessors retained much of the previous year’s offense, including terminology, he has sacked much of the playbook. If Taylor does to the Ute offense what he did to Eastern Washington’s, the Utes will be almost unrecognizable this season. EWU threw 620 passes under Taylor last season — 210 more than Utah.

“There was a lot of carry-over in the run game and protection,” says Taylor. “But the pass game is a massive overhaul. For the skill guys, it’s a big change.”

It’s also a big change for Ute coaches, who are going to have to develop the stomach for a passing game. When LaVell Edwards converted BYU to a pass attack in the 1970s, he believed it was essential to commit to it wholly, meaning the Cougars would pass in any situation without hesitation — fourth down, fourth quarter, red zone, leading or trailing. Taylor has been told he has free reign, but what will happen when it’s white-knuckle time on a team that has leaned on a conservative run game for years?

“My job is to do what I do,” says Taylor. “You’ve got to be strong and have conviction. That’s the only chance I have to succeed. If I try to be someone else, I’ll be a second-best version of him."

The Utes believe they need to try something dramatically different. Much to their credit, they have become a perennial challenger in the Pac-12 after just six years in the league, and they’ve done so despite the lack of a legitimate pass attack. Since joining the conference, they have finished at the bottom of the league (or close to it) annually in passing yards, and, since 2005, they have never finished among the nation’s top 50 in total offense. Where would they be if they could catch up to the modern pass era that has left them behind?

Eastern Washington quarterback Gage Gubrud looks for a target during game against Washington State in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2016. Under Troy Taylor's tutelage at Eastern Washington, Gubrud, a walk-on quarterback, threw for 5,160 yards and 48 touchdowns en route to a 12-2 record. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

They took a chance on Taylor, who has little experience at the collegiate level. He had astonishing success with quarterbacks and offenses during his 15 years at Folsom (California) High and one year at Eastern Washington. His prep offenses ranked among the state’s top five for seven years, leading the state four times while winning 58 of 61 games. Quarterback Jake Browning (now starring at Washington) threw for 16,775 yards and 229 touchdowns, including a season-best 5,790 yards and a national record-tying 91 TD passes as a senior despite rarely playing in the fourth quarter. At Eastern Washington, Taylor employed a walk-on, wing-T quarterback named Gage Gubrud to throw for 5,160 yards and 48 touchdowns en route to a 12-2 record. EWU put up 45 points against Washington State.

How did this happen and how is he doing it? To answer those questions, you have to go back to 2004, when Taylor was struggling to create a winner at Folsom, which had posted a 15-15 record after three seasons with the West Coast offense.

“I’m a bad loser,” Taylor says. “When I lose, I have bad dreams; I’m physically ill. I’m wondering how am I going to win if I’m going to coach?”

He found the answer when he watched Utah play on TV that year. Urban Meyer was the coach at the time, and he had installed a spread offense that was so prolific that it would inspire the rest of the nation’s teams to copy him, including Taylor.

Utah football coach, Urban Meyer coaches at the practice facility at the University of Utah in 2003. Taylor tells the story of watching Utah play on TV that year and being impressed with Meyer's spread offense, an offense that became so prolific that it inspired the rest of the nations teams to copy him, including Taylor himself. | Michael Brandy, Deseret News

“It was an epiphany for me,” he says. “We were mediocre. We weren’t doing a great job of maximizing players. I don’t blame the kids. There’s always a way.”

He began to learn everything he could about the spread offense. He talked to Meyer on the phone. He met with Meyer’s OC, Mike Sanford, and locked himself in a room with video for four days. He continued to call coaches who knew the offense. He visited other successful coaches to mine their brains for information about offenses in general, most notably Bill Walsh, the legendary San Francisco 49ers coach.

In a few years, after his offenses had taken off in dramatic and consistent fashion, the roles were reversed. College coaches began to call him to see what he was doing. Taylor had taken all the information he had gleaned from other coaches and from his own experiences and made it his own creation, one that simplified and organized an offense the way Steve Jobs might have done it.

At about the same time that Taylor was developing his offense, the iPhone was being unveiled, and the coach saw it as a metaphor in his work. “Some people think simplicity means dumbing it down, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s taking something complex and simplifying it so it’s easy to use and understand. The iPhone hid the complexity. It was so easy to use that 7-year-olds can use it. That’s hard work to take something complex and make it easy for the user. That’s the model I wanted for the quarterback in my offense. I try to hide the complexity of the offense from the user, particularly the quarterback, so he can pick it up like an iPhone and use it.”

It is widely believed that quarterback is the most difficult job in sports, and coaches traditionally have made it even more difficult. Quarterbacks are expected to handle a variety of tasks — get the play from the sideline and internalize it, call the play in the huddle, decide (and remember) the snap count, break the huddle, make a pre-snap read of a constantly shifting defense, check the formation to ensure everyone is lined up correctly, put receivers in motion, check the linemen’s splits, check to ensure the protection is correct, remember the hot receiver, call the snap count ….

Then, the difficult part begins, and the quarterback is expected to read the movements of defensive players in three seconds to determine where he will throw the ball while in the midst of violent chaos.

“Humans are terrible multitaskers,” says Taylor. “I decided to disperse the responsibilities. Instead of placing everything on him, let’s make it easier.”

His quarterbacks do none of the above. Pre-snap read? Pointless, since defenses disguise their attack. Formations? Taylor calls them “irrelevant” for the quarterback. Play calls in the huddle? What huddle? He reduced the quarterback’s duties to one thing.

Better to let Taylor explain:

“Part of my job is to build and develop the quarterback’s reactions so that they become instinctive. I’m attempting to get the quarterback’s prefrontal cortex to shut down. The prefrontal cortex is the executive part of our brain. It is responsible for most of our planned actions, like choosing the words we use.

"It’s also our self-critic that creates doubts and insecurities. It’s very valuable but hinders us in times that we need to react quickly and improvise. I want my quarterbacks to play with the fast-reacting subconscious mind. The instinctive part of our brain. When we hear a noise in the jungle, we react quickly. There isn’t time to think through options. For a quarterback, the reactions happen in tenths of a second.”

To facilitate this, the plays have to be repped over and over and over in practice so that everything becomes intuitive and instinctive and players have had to react to numerous defensive responses until it becomes second nature. This would not be possible if Taylor brought a thick playbook to the huddle; instead, he builds the offense around 15-20 plays where other teams might have 100. (“I can still name the five or six plays Bill Walsh’s teams ran,” says Taylor.)

Rather than read defensive players, the quarterback looks to predetermined areas of the field for each play and works through a progression — 1, 2, 3, 4 — to find an open receiver. Sometimes the progression starts to the field (or wide) side and works to the boundary (short side) and other times it starts on the boundary side and works to the field side. Sometimes the progressions will go high to low, or even low to high. The areas are sequenced so that the wide receivers are coming out of their breaks right as the quarterback looks to them in the progression.

Let’s let Taylor explain again: “What complicates matters is that defenses are varied and how they react are often unpredictable. So the wide receivers must improvise and adjust their routes in order to find space (get open). As receivers develop the same appropriate reactions to where the defenders are on the field, they begin to work together in an intuitive way. It's all about finding the space between the defenders in zone coverages and creating space (or separating from a defender) versus man-to-man coverage.

“Once the quarterback and the receivers are on the same page it really becomes unstoppable, but it takes a lot of practice. That’s why I limit the amount of concepts (plays) and rarely make any alterations to these concepts. I have developed these concepts over the last 10 years and adapted them to where they are now. I will change the formations from week to week, but not the progression for the QB.

“I've eliminated all the QB's responsibilities to just one thing — going through his progression and throwing to open space. The mind does not like to multitask. It only has so much bandwidth. So by limiting the QB's responsibility to just going through his progression and throwing to open space he is able to fully immerse himself in one activity. After lots and lots of repetitions, it becomes automatic or subconscious. It’s the same as when you first learned to drive a car. It took a lot of thinking and was incredibly stressful, but after doing it for years it becomes effortless.”

(Note: It is revealing that Taylor refers to plays as “concepts”; it’s an accurate reflection of how he views them — the plays are a format for a general idea of potentialities.)

Taylor decided years ago that the most important player on the field is the quarterback — If a quarterback is successful, a team will win or have a good chance to win, he reasoned — so everything he does is based on making the quarterback’s job easier. This affects everything, even how he interacts with him. At Folsom, he even spent time with his quarterback at lunch and between classes to make him feel comfortable and confident around the coach. Then he built a quarterback-friendly offense.

“When quarterbacks can’t handle it, then coaches claim they have the wrong guy,” Taylor said. “But if you’re waiting around to get Tom Brady, you’re never going to succeed. You’ve got to give a quarterback the tools to succeed. You’ve got to make it work and make the offense as simple and user friendly as possible. Design it so the pool of (quarterback) candidates is larger, so that more guys can come in and play rather than waiting for finding the perfect quarterback. If a concept is not working, I need to figure out why.”

The Utes hope the new guy with the fresh ideas does just that as they head into another season.