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Going with Huntley at QB proves Kyle Whittingham is evolving at Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Last week, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham was wrapping up post-practice interviews when he was again asked about the starting quarterback situation. He said he would have a decision early this week.

Would there be an announcement?

“Would you like one?” he said, drawing a laugh from the media. “We can do that. As soon as we know, then we’ll get an announcement made.”

It came in the form of Monday morning’s news release. Tucked inauspiciously in the second item was the statement that sophomore Tyler Huntley had beaten out senior Troy Williams, who started every game last season.

At age 57, Whittingham is becoming a regular Renaissance man. Thirteen seasons into his career as a head coach, he’s making significant changes. He’s not buying a Jag, stocking up on jewelry or growing his hair shoulder length. But this year’s Whit isn’t the same-old Whit.

When was the last time Whittingham surprised anyone with his choice of quarterbacks? Year after year, he announces that every position is open, claiming there will be a quarterback battle. Then he names the same guy.

This year’s move is a steep departure for Whittingham, who is at heart a creature of habit. You could recognize his teams coming in the distance. His was the one with a one-eyed, snarling, quarterback-eating defense and a misfiring offense.

He made numerous changes in offensive coordinators — boy, did he make changes — but they always understood their charge was to avoid getting fancy. Just secure the football and let the defense keep you in the game. In large part, that has worked. Utah has been ranked in one of the polls — counting the College Football Playoff poll — 28 times in two years. This week he is No. 25 in the coaches poll.

But in hiring Troy Taylor from Eastern Washington this year, Whittingham has taken a different approach, promising the team will throw “a lot more.” Equally important, he has given Taylor freedom few if any previous coordinators have had.

Huntley is fast and elusive and hungry and confident. Asked if he has the ability to compete in the best quarterback conference in the country, Huntley said, “I believe I’m a good enough quarterback to play in this conference, so I’ve just got to go out and prove it to them.”

Huntley says he believes all of his offensive teammates have endorsed Taylor’s faster-paced approach.

“We all believe in it,” he said.

With Cooper Bateman and Williams still available, the race isn’t necessarily set for the season. But for once, competition for the starting spot really was close. Also, odds of any quarterback making it through a full season nowadays are slim.

Regardless, Whittingham is endorsing a change in how the Utes operate. He doesn’t plan on becoming primarily an offensive team; he has put too many defensive players in the NFL for that. But he openly allows Utah has been lacking on the other side. Utah was seventh in total offense, eighth in scoring, ninth in passing and 10th in passing efficiency in the conference last year.

Curiously, Williams was elected an offensive team captain last week. Taylor was asked if having a backup as a captain would be “awkward.”

“I don’t know. Good question,” Taylor said. “I think … they’re independent whether he’s the starter or the backup or whatever. He’s still got to lead and be a standup guy, and he’ll do that.”

From the bench, it turns out.

For Utah fans, this can’t be bad news. It says Whittingham truly has given freedom to his new coordinator, and that he’s serious about improving a perennially weak attack. Meanwhile, Utah has a verbal commitment from hotshot California quarterback Jack Tuttle.

Maybe Whittingham is trying too hard, or messing with a good thing. Maybe he’s getting greedy. But to paraphrase the infamous Gordon Gekko in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” greed is good, greed is right, greed works.

In this case, it can’t hurt to try.