Utah's offense has struggled since joining the Pac-12. Utah has never finished better than 11th in the Pac-12 in total offense. Having a great offense is certainly not necessary to win the conference. Stanford has won the Pac-12 in three of the last five seasons, and they never ranked better than eighth in total offense in any of those seasons. This article will cover the problems that have plagued the Utah offense and some potential fixes.
Utah is one of the most physical teams in the conference. They are the only team in the conference that can push around Stanford. With this in mind, should Utah run a pro-style offense? No. In 2011, Utah ran a pro-style offense under former offensive coordinator Norm Chow. This was by far Utah's worst offense in the Pac-12. They averaged only 310.9 yards per game (which was dead last in the Pac-12 and No. 109 in the nation). Under Brian Johnson in 2012, Utah ran a multiple offense which included a lot of I-formation power running, and they finished 11th in the Pac-12 and 108th in the nation in total offense. I believe for the Utes the future is in the spread offense for multiple reasons. One big one being that they have recruited primarily for a spread offense. Now just because Utah runs a spread offense does not mean they should abandon physical running. They have the reputation for physicality for a reason, and they should maintain that philosophy. However, power running alone is not enough in a league like the Pac-12 with many high-powered offenses.
Before we can talk about fixing Utah's offense, we first need to discuss the problems that are causing the offense to struggle. Injuries certainly have plagued the Utah offense. Starting quarterbacks Jordan Wynn, Travis Wilson, and Kendal Thompson all suffered season-ending in their Utah careers. Utah's two best running backs in the Pac-12, John White IV and Devontae Booker, both missed time due to injuries. Utah also has suffered numerous injuries at wide receiver. Injuries though are part of football, so while they have played a part in Utah's offensive woes, they are certainly not the only issue to blame. The three biggest issues for the Utah offense are in no order: play calling, quarterback play, and wide receiver play.
Utah has changed offensive coordinators every season since 2008, meaning schemes and terminology have changed as well. Most of the OCs ran some variation of a spread offense, with the exceptions being Chow and Johnson in 2011 and 2012 running a pro-style and a multiple offense respectively. In every season in the Pac-12 (except 2013), Utah was near the top of the conference in run-to-pass ratio.
The goal of a spread offense is to spread out a defense, hence the name. Utah however does not achieve this. The Utes run the ball so frequently inside the tackles that the defense can stack the box. Utah has also failed to produce an effective passing attack, further allowing the defense to key in on the running game. The spread offense typically uses smaller, faster players at the H and Y positions. In Utah's spread offense, they keep a tight end at the Y position, but they replace the H back (or full back) with a slot receiver on most plays. Stanford can get away with running at a stacked box because they frequently has formations with seven or even eight offensive linemen on the field. If Utah is committed to running the spread offense, they need to come up with create ways force the defense to respect the perimeter of the field, thereby spreading out the defense. Utah was a run-first team in 2015, but they were 10th in the Pac-12 in yards per carry, ahead of only Colorado and WSU. Utah used only one running back primarily (with the exception being in 2013): John White IV in 2011 and 2012 and Devontae Booker in 2014 and 2015. Because Utah relied too heavily on just one running back to carry the load, both White IV and Booker got hurt in their second season as the feature back (where no such running back injuries occurred in 2013). This run-first approach has caused speedy playmakers on the perimeter to be under utilized in favor of the power rushing attack.
Once Utah lost Booker, the offense began to really struggle. Utah managed their three worst offensive games of the season without Booker. Utah's 3.13 yards per play against BYU was their worst total as a Pac-12 team, and their 197 total yards in that game was the second lowest total since joining the Pac-12 (ahead of only the 188 total yards they gained at Washington in 2012). The Utah passing attack could not step up in Booker's absence. Quarterback Travis Wilson had his three lowest passing totals in Utah's final three games, ending the season with a 71-yard outing against BYU. Booker is now off to the NFL, so the offense will need to figure out other ways to move the ball in 2016.
It seems like the offensive coordinators for the Utes call overly conservative game plans except against overmatched opponents (like FCS teams) or in situations where they have nothing to lose by being aggressive (like against Oregon this year or in games where the Utes are well behind). Utah also often fails to put teams away after getting a lead. This falls on the play calling. Utah's strengths in the Pac-12 have always been defense, special teams, and running the football. Utah's MO the last few years has been to be conservative on offense and allow the excellent defense and special teams to win the field position battle. This has worked the last two seasons when Utah has had the back-to-back Ray Guy Award winner at punter (Tom Hackett), an excellent kicker in Andy Phillips, dynamic return men (like Reggie Dunn, Kaelin Clay, and Britain Covey), and a defense full of playmakers, who could generate sacks and/or takeaways. This strategy will not work as well moving forward however because Utah loses a lot on defense in addition to Hackett. Utah will need to be more aggressive on offense in 2016 because they will not be able to win the field position battle as effectively.
Poor play calling has been amplified by poor play from both wide receivers and quarterbacks. Outside of Dres Anderson's 1,000 yard receiving season in 2013, Utah's wide receivers have struggled in the Pac-12. The Utes have primarily had two types of wide receivers in the Pac-12. The wide receivers have either been faster wide receivers with poor hands (and are often smaller) or wide receivers who can catch but are not fast enough to create separation consistently (and are often bigger). This falls largely on coaches for failing to effectively recruit and develop wide receivers. Utah has not landed a four-star wide receiver (based on the 247Sports Composite ranking) since joining the Pac-12. Utah has had plenty of tall wide receivers who have shown the ability to out-jump defenders for the football despite lacking the speed to create separation. Certain routes either do not require much separation because the rely more on jump balls (like fades). Combination routes can also be used to create space for wide receivers as well. Utah failed to call these types of plays enough to utilize the talent they have had at wide receiver. Utah did not retain wide receiver coach Taylor Stubblefield for next season, letting him go after two seasons. The new wide receiver coach will have plenty of experienced wide receivers to work with but will be tasked with helping them improve at catching the football and/or creating separation.
Travis Wilson started by far the most games at quarterback for Utah in the Pac-12. He had his ups and downs in his Utah career. This was not completely his fault. The revolving door at OC and wide receiver drops were not his fault. He however had his flaws as well. He was not the best at reading the defense and did not throw with anticipation. He also struggled with inaccuracy. These issues magnified the wide receiver issues that were compounded by poor play calling.
Now that we have broken down some of the issues contributing to Utah's offensive woes, how does the team go about fixing these issues? First off, the passing game needs to improve. Utah can clearly force a defense to respect the running game, which can help the passing game. Utah did not run enough play action last season, and it seemed like most of the time when the Utes would utilize play action, it was on an obvious passing down (like the last offensive play against UCLA). Creatively mixing in play action is one way to keep a defense honest.
Utah seemed to have very basic routes for their wide receivers last season. This makes it easier for a defense in pass coverage. Running a variety of different routes and combination routes can help wide receivers create more separation, yielding easier throws for a quarterback. When a defense brings extra defenders like safeties into the box to stop the run, vertical routes can be very effective.
Another way to keep the defense from stacking the box is using screens. Utah had success last season throwing bubble screens to Covey and Bubba Poole. One effective combination route is to run a bubble screen and a slant route, which will often result in space for one of the two receivers. There are other types of screens Utah could run more as well like middle screens, slip screens, and slot screens. One play, while not technically a screen, that Utah used to run all the time was the Utah pass. It is an overhand shovel option pass. You can see this play run below with Alex Smith at quarterback.
Along the lines of the shovel option, there are other rushing plays that can stretch the defense to the sideline. Plays like jet sweeps, speed options, toss plays, etc. all challenge the defense on the perimeter, preventing the defense from stacking the box. Utah will have players like Troy McCormick, Kyle Fulks, and Kenric Young among others who all have the speed to get around the edge of the defense. Running five to 10 perimeter running plays a game will help keep the opposing defense honest.
A core part of Utah's offense has been the read option. This does incorporate some perimeter running by either the quarterback or running back, but there is a modern variation of the triple option that really forces the defense to respect the perimeter. In the triple option, the first read is the defensive end. If he stays outside, the quarterback hands off to the dive man, and if he crashes in, the quarterback keeps the ball. The second read is the pitch man, and the quarterback either keeps the ball or pitches it depending on who the pitch man takes. The modern twist on this is instead of pitching, the third option is a screen pass to the sideline. Many teams have started to add this type of play to their spread offense because it makes the read option even more difficult to stop. An example of the play run by NIU can be seen below.
Utah will have a lot of new faces at the skill positions in the offense next season. Utah will not have a quarterback with any starting experience on the roster. Booker is gone at running back, and he was by far Utah's best offensive weapon for two seasons. They also lose three wide receivers (Covey, Poole, and Kenneth Scott). Utah will be relying on unproven players at key positions on offense. The quarterback battle was broken down well here. Utah will likely rely on Joe Williams and Troy McCormick at running back. There are a lot of upperclassmen at wide receiver for Utah, but none are proven commodities. Utah will need guys like Tim Patrick, Delshawn McClellon, Kenric Young, Kyle Fulks, Tyrone Smith, or Raelon Singleton to step up to give the new Utah quarterback someone to throw the ball to.