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Will Utes’ improved passing game be enough to help deliver a Pac-12 championship?

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is hoping to air it out more efficiently with senior quarterback Charlie Brewer at the helm

Utah receiver Solomon Enis catches a pass during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Utah receiver Solomon Enis catches a pass during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The Utes look to unveil their improved passing game Thursday night against Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
University of Utah Athletics

At the start of almost every football season, it’s a foregone conclusion that Utah will have a stingy defense and a strong run game.

But, usually, at the start of almost every Utes season, the big variable is the passing game.

Coach Kyle Whittingham has said throughout the offseason that he wants to see the offense become more efficient, and make dynamic plays, through the air.

That’s something to watch Thursday (5:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network) when the No. 24 Utes open the season against Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“We feel we’re in a good place in that regard. The proof will be what happens in the games. We’ll see where we’re at,” Whittingham said of the passing game. “We know we need to throw the ball more efficiently than we have in order to take that next step. We’ve worked hard toward that end. Hopefully, we’ll start to see some of that manifest on Thursday night.”

It’s not like Utah has always struggled throwing the ball. In 2018 and 2019, the Utes passed for more than 3,000 yards each season.

But last year, the Utes endured a quarterback change in the season opener and a pandemic-shortened campaign as they dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness when it came to passing the football, so they relied heavily on the ground game.

This season, there’s a higher expectation, thanks in part to starting quarterback Charlie Brewer, who threw for nearly 10,000 yards during his time at Baylor.

“We’ve got to get back to being balanced,” Whittingham said. “It’s going to be important that we’re able to throw the ball. It doesn’t matter how good you are at running back if you can’t throw the ball to get rid of some of those seven- eight-, nine-man boxes.”

Whittingham understands there’s a risk versus reward element when making a commitment to passing the ball.

“We’ve still got to take care of the football and win the turnover battle in each game. That’s not going to change. When we do throw the ball, the ball is in nobody’s hands and it’s up for grabs,” he said. “It’s not like when you’re running it and you have to secure it, there should never be an issue with it. … To say that just because we’re going to emphasize throwing the ball more we’re going to be able to tolerate more turnovers, no. That’s not the case. We’ve got to take care of it and make good decisions. It’s all about efficiency in the throw game. I look for us to be 150-plus (in NCAA pass efficiency). If we hit that 150-plus mark, then we’re in good shape.”

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is confident in the quarterbacks’ ability to throw.

“If you feel great about the guy pulling the trigger,” he said, “it’s a lot easier to call pass plays.”

Of course, Brewer has numerous weapons to target, including tight end Brant Kuithe and wide receivers Britain Covey and Theo Howard.

Covey said the reason why he’s so optimistic about the offense is because of the play of Brewer and the other quarterbacks.

“I attribute it mostly to the quarterbacks. Their confidence level rubs off on people,” he said. “And you’re able to open the playbook in a way that makes it really hard to key on any one part of the offense. As you’re searching for your identity, if you have a great quarterback, your identity can be a plethora of things.”

Meanwhile, Utah has four running backs that will see playing time Thursday. At this point, while Whittingham said he’s been pleased with the performance of the running backs — T.J. Pledger, Chris Curry, Tavion Thomas and Micah Bernard — none has emerged to claim the starting spot.

“We have a plan in mind to play them all and give them all carries and opportunities to show what they can do,” Whittingham said. “Each of them have their strengths. We expect all of them to get playing time and get carries. We’ll see what the production level is and go from there.”

Whittingham has said the offensive line is the position that concerns him most because of injuries during fall camp.

“It’s the most unstable, at least health-wise, position on the team right now,” he said.

The Utes had trouble with pass protection last season.

“We’ve got to understand that we’ve got to do everything that it takes to keep our quarterbacks protected. We’ve got to have that mentality that nobody gets to our quarterback,” said tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham. “We’ve got some quarterbacks that, if they get a little bit of time, they have the arm strength and accuracy to get the ball down the field. If we can do that and give them that protection, they both have the opportunity to be really dangerous QBs.”

Starting Thursday, as the 2021 season dawns, there will be a lot of interest in, among other things, Utah’s passing game.