SALT LAKE CITY — With all of the attention being lavished on the possibilities that await Utah’s passing game in a Troy Taylor offense, it might be tempting to overlook the profound impact his system will have on the Utes’ ground game.
“I think it’s going to be even easier running the ball this year,” said sophomore Zack Moss. “Last year Joe (Williams) ran with eight guys in the box, nine guys in the box. But this year it’s more spread, so there is an even better chance of us getting more yards that what we did last year.”
In fact, he predicts that the myriad ways in which Taylor involves the running backs will mean even more contributions from a group that has been the staple of the program’s offense. It’s an assessment that Utah’s new running backs coach echoed.
“It’s not either or,” said Kiel McDonald, who worked with Taylor at Eastern Washington. “This offense is so versatile; it’s whatever the defense gives us, we’re going to go ahead and exploit. So that’s the good thing about this offense. You’re not just locked into the run game, or you don’t just have to be locked in to the pass game. You’re able to go ahead and so there's some pretty special things in this offense.”
The expectation that Utah’s passing game will dramatically improve under Taylor’s leadership doesn’t change the need for the Utes’ ability to rely on their longtime staple.
“The running game is always going to be important,” Whittingham said. “You’ve got to be able to run the ball.”
And as usual, the Utes have a promising group of athletes vying for the opportunity to carry the ball.
A pre-camp depth chart listed three players vying for the starting job — junior Armand Shyne, sophomore Zack Moss and sophomore Devonta’e Henry-Cole.
“Right now Zack Moss and Armand Shyne are waging a pretty fierce battle for that No. 1 spot,” Whittingham said after Thursday’s practice. “I'd say it’s neck and neck right now.”
McDonald said when he arrived on the hill, the first thing he noticed was the talent.
“We have some really, really good running backs here,” he said. “When I first got there, I thought this was a very special group. I thought they were very versatile, and I was very excited to be able to coach this group.”
Of those vying for the starting job, McDonald said they all have unique strengths.
“When you talk about Zack Moss, you’re talking about someone who is very versatile,” McDonald said. “He can do it all. He catches the ball; he can run routes. When you’re talking about Armand, you’re talking about a physical young man who can pass pro, run for tough yards, and is just very well put together. And DHC — speed demon. He’s really, really fast, and that young man can do some things in open space.”
The leader of the group, according to both coaches and players, is senior Jordan Howard.
“He was just voted to our leadership council,” McDonald said. “He’s a great young man. … He’s everything. He works hard. He’s a vocal guy. He just has every quality you would ask for in a young man.”
Moss started after Williams briefly retired just a few games into the 2016 season. When Moss was sidelined with an injury, Shyne took over with impressive results. But in his second start, he tore his ACL and missed, not only the rest of the season but spring camp.
Shyne said he feels “great” and is enjoying all of the new aspects of Taylor’s offense.
“Running backs still have the same role as last year,” Shyne said. “But there will be more of a balance.”
Shyne is more reserved than Moss, but both men said the competition between them and the other running backs is making them each better.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Moss said. “We’re all working, coming out here, getting better each and every day. We’re watching film together, just pushing each other. So I learn from one guy or another guy learns from me. Then we all talk about it. We all get better each day.”
Moss said McDonald is much more “vocal” than Dennis Erickson was last season.
“He is really on us,” Moss said smiling. “He wants you to know not just what you’re doing on the field, but what the receivers are doing, what the O-line in front of you is doing, the different coverages they run. … We’re just getting the whole 360 of football.” In addition to adjusting to a new position coach, the running backs are just being asked to do more. They’re blocking more, running more routes and catching more balls in the backfield.
While Shyne’s forte has been his power, Moss said he appreciates the chance to catch balls, which is something he did in high school.
All of them are embracing the changes as they amount to more ways to be involved in helping the team succeed.
“Everybody is really excited about the offense,” Moss said. “We all knew about coach Taylor when he first came in, and they all want to score points. Everybody wants to get in the end zone, and this offense gives everybody a chance to get in the end zone.”