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Utes going nowhere without great quarterback play

Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor talks with quarterbacks during University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017.
Offensive coordinator Troy Taylor talks with quarterbacks during University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — With the season opener 11 days out, Troy Taylor says the Utes are “right where we want to be” at this stage, and his offensive installation is “95 percent complete.”

Cool for him.

Now comes the question-and-answer period: Is someone actually going to thrive at quarterback, or will the new passing offense just be a gussied-up version of an old problem? Every year, Utah produces somebody to take snaps, and every year the Utes get stuck in traffic. With Taylor coming in new as offensive coordinator, maybe this time it will work. Or maybe they’re whistling in the dark.

A first-rate quarterback has appeared at Utah only a trickle of times since All-American Lee Grosscup in 1957. Most notable were Scott Mitchell, Brian Johnson and Alex Smith. There are positions with less talent and depth, this year, but nowhere is there a bigger need for competence.

Realistically, only a few teams nationwide have great quarterbacks. Utah’s problem is that it lives in a conference with an abundance of them. Southern California has Sam Darnold, projected by most experts as next year’s No. 1 draft pick … unless they favor UCLA’s Josh Rosen. Washington has Jake Browning, last season’s conference Player of the Year. Oregon has Justin Herbert, who started and thrived as a freshman. Washington State’s Luke Falk threw 38 touchdowns a year ago.

A Sports Illustrated article this week ranked the conferences on their quarterback depth. It’s no mystery which was No. 1.

“There is no other league with a larger accumulation of high-end talent under center, and whatever the Pac-12 lacks in overall quality, it makes up for in peak value,” writes Chris Johnson.

To the Ute coaches’ credit, they’re not dodging the issue. They agree on both points. It is the best quarterback conference, and Utah does need exceptional quarterbacking.

“You know, in this offense your quarterback needs to be efficient, make great decisions and be a proficient guy,” Taylor said. “So I guess that would equate to a great quarterback. So if we want to be successful, we need great quarterback play.”

The good news for the Utes is that last year’s starter, Troy Williams, claims he has only put “maybe like 50-60 percent” of his game on display. That’s due to both nagging injuries and the system. Taylor was hired to fix that. Utah has good talent at receiver, boosted by Oregon transfer Darren Carrington. But its run game took a hit when Armand Shyne went down with an injury.

Facing North Dakota in the opener won’t shed much light on Utah’s offense, nor will Game 3 against San Jose State. After that it gets tough. ESPN’s Football Power Index only has Utah favored in three games: North Dakota, SJSU and Arizona State. It gives the Utes a 7 percent chance to beat Washington, 10 percent chance against USC, and 15 percent against Oregon.

Contrary to popular opinion about the Utah-BYU game being a tossup every year, the FPI gives the Utes only a 33 percent chance.

For good or bad, Utah’s quarterbacks this year will be Williams, Tyler Huntley and Alabama transfer Cooper Bateman. Williams started last season, Huntley has made impressive strides, and Bateman is the best passer.

Utah was just a few plays away from a sub-.500 season last year. And a few plays from a great one. Business as usual.

“Most teams in the country are in the same boat,” Whittingham said. “The margin whether you win and lose is razor thin.”

The difference is usually in quarterback play.

“It sure helps,” Whittingham said. “When you have great quarterback play, you have a chance to win every single week, I don ‘t care who you’re playing against. If you have great quarterback play, that is the most important thing to an offense. This is a league of great quarterbacks. There’s a bunch of them. And it’s real hard to win if you don’t have that level of player in the quarterback position. That makes it twice as hard.”

And half as likely they’ll get out of this thing alive.