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What Does Utah Need from the Starting Quarterback in 2015

In this article, we look at past performances to project what Utah will need from behind center if they want to compete for a Pac-12 title in 2015

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

2014 was the most successful season yet for Utah football since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. They finished the season 9-4 (5-4 Pac-12) with a win in the Las Vegas Bowl and a final Coaches' Poll ranking of No. 20. Utah returns 16 total starters (seven on offense, seven on defense and two on special teams), and expectations are high. Utah will be led on offense in 2015 by first-team All-Pac-12 running back Devontae Booker, who rushed for 1,512 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014. Booker is looking to build on his strong season in 2015. With seven starters back from a defense that led the nation in sacks last season and finished second in the Pac-12 in total defense, many people believe this could be Utah's best defense since 2008. Utah figures to have an elite kicking/punting game as well with All-American candidate kicker Andy Phillips and 2014 Ray Guy Award winning punter Tom Hackett both back in 2015. Because of all of these factors and Utah's style of play, Utah does not need as much production from their starting quarterback as a team like Cal or Washington State does to win games in the Pac-12. However, poor quarterback play did contribute to Utah's losses last season. We will look at passing stats from the past two seasons (only focusing on Pac-12 games) to breakdown what Utah will reasonably need from their starting quarterback in 2015 if they want to challenge for a Pac-12 title.

Senior Travis Wilson looks like he will be the starter in 2015, but senior Kendal Thompson showed improved arm strength in spring football and has made a speedy recovery from the knee injury that cut the 2014 season short for him, so he could challenge for the starting spot. Each quarterback brings different skills to the table, so each quarterback would be expected to contribute slightly differently if named the starter. Wilson has the better arm, so the offense would likely rely a bit more heavily on the downfield passing game if Wilson starts. Thompson is the more capable runner, so the read-option would likely be featured more with him behind center.

Once teams began to figure out that Booker was Utah's best offensive weapon, his stats began to decline. Booker ran for over 100 yards in each of Utah's first five conference games with six rushing touchdowns, but he only topped 100 yards rushing once in the final four conference games and managed only one rushing touchdown. Teams were able to stack the box and slow him down. He averaged 5.78 yards per carry in Utah's first four conference games and only 4.22 yards per carry in Utah's final five games and was held under 4.0 yards per carry in five of Utah's final six conference games. Utah's quarterback needs to do enough to keep opposing defenses honest, so there are running lanes for Booker.

Travis Wilson

Wilson has a strong arm and a quick release. He showed against a stout Stanford front seven in 2013 that he could get the ball out quickly to backs and receivers on swing and screen passes, preventing Stanford from stacking the box and allowing running back Bubba Poole to rush for 111 yards and over 5.0 yards per carry. Throughout his career, Wilson has showed that he can create big plays down the field. There have been times throughout his career against Pac-12 opponents when Wilson showed flashes of greatness, knocking off No. 5 Stanford and putting up 279 yards passing, 142 yards rushing and five total touchdowns against Oregon State in 2013, and he has topped 300 yards passing twice in conference play, against Colorado in 2014 and Arizona in 2012. Wilson was also the final starting quarterback to throw an interception in 2014. However, Wilson has been wildly inconsistent in his Utah career. He tossed six interceptions against UCLA and three against Oregon State in 2013. He completed only six passes against Arizona State in 2013 and only threw for 57 yards against the Sun Devils in 2014. In 2012, he managed only 55 yards passing against Washington. Wilson has all of the physical tools you could want in a quarterback, with his great size (6' 7", 233), good arm strength, and above average mobility for his size. He struggles with some of the mental aspects of the games, like reading a defense, going through his progressions, and stepping up into the pocket against pressure.

Utah is 7-1 in games where Wilson throws two or more touchdowns and one or fewer interceptions (the lone loss was against Arizona in 2012). Utah is 0-8 when Wilson throws more than one interception. Utah is a ball-control team, running the football, playing great defense, and controlling field position with an elite punting game, so turnovers even more costly to a team like Utah than most other teams. In 2014, there was a marked difference in Wilson's stats in games Utah won versus games that Utah lost. In Pac-12 wins (excluding the UCLA and Oregon State wins), Wilson completed almost 66% of his passes, averaged 227.3 yards passing per game, 7.03 yards per attempt, and one touchdown per game to no interceptions. This gives a quarterback rating of 145.45. In losses, Wilson completed 54.7% of his passes, for only 165.5 yards per game, 5.66 yards per attempt with one touchdown and one interception per game. This gives a quarterback rating of 106.67. This lack of consistency has been the problem with Wilson over the course of his career. When he plays well, Utah usually wins, but Utah usually loses when he does not play well. Utah's lone Pac-12 win with Wilson at quarterback was against Stanford in a game where Wilson completed 67.6% of his passes for 234 yards, 6.9 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and one interception (QB rating of 138.99).

Looking at Wilson's stats in Pac-12 wins over the last two seasons, it becomes clear that he usually needs to throw for about 225 to 250 yards per game, over 7.0 yards per attempt, complete about 66% of his passes, throw at least two touchdowns a game with less than one interception per game, giving him a quarterback rating in the 145 range, which would put him in the middle of the Pac-12. These are stats Wilson can achieve, but the question is whether he can do it consistently. I would like to see Wilson cut down on his running if he is the starter for several reasons (but not completely eliminate his running game). The first is to minimize the chance he is injured. He suffered a terrible looking injury (that he returned from) against Michigan in 2014, and he suffered several injuries in 2013 as well. Secondly, many of Wilson's carries come when he bails out of the pocket under pressure rather than stepping up in the pocket and throwing the ball to a receiver. This leads to either minimal gains or sacks most of the time. There are times when Wilson can pick up huge chunks of yards with his legs, but that is usually when he is running through a lane rather than escaping pressure. When Wilson runs through a lane or makes the right decision to keep the ball on an option play, he can do damage with his legs, and I do not want to see that stop; but I do want to see him make smarter decisions about when to run versus when to step up in the pocket or throw the football away.

Kendal Thompson

Thompson's arm looked stronger this spring than it did last season, but he still may not have a strong enough arm to consistently throw the ball down the field, especially compared to Wilson. Where Thompson can help Booker is through effectively running the option. In Utah's spread offense, there is not a lead blocking fullback for Booker, the fullback is instead replaced with an extra wide receiver. The read-option causes the defensive end to have to make a decision to take either the running back or the quarterback. Thompson is a dangerous enough runner that the defensive end has to respect his running ability, which is effectively like having a lead-blocking fullback block the defensive end because he is out of the play. If the defensive end crashes in on Booker, Thompson can do damage with his legs, which he showed against UCLA. Not only is Thompson a better runner than Wilson, he makes better reads in the option game as well. While Thompson's ability in the option game can take away one defender, Oregon State showed that by simply stacking the box they could mostly take away Utah's running game. If Thompson is the starter, he needs to improve his completion percentage from 61.5% and force opposing defenses to respect his arm enough not to completely load the box. Prior to his injury against Oregon, Thompson showed he could effectively lead the offense by mixing in enough short passes to keep the defense honest, while allowing Utah to move the ball on the ground with effective option football. The offense in my mind, if Thompson was the quarterback, would be mostly be high percentage, short passing routes like outs, screens, swing passes, and slants, mixed with a heavy dose of read-option, speed-option, and some triple option.

The stats I believe Thompson would need to have would be a completion percentage over 67%, at least 7.0 yards per attempt, roughly 175 to 200 yards passing per game, 50 to 75 yards rushing per game with better than 4.0 yards per carry (including sack numbers), and at least two total touchdowns per game. He would also need to have fewer turnovers than Wilson because the offense would be more efficient but less explosive under Thompson, so ball security would be key. This would mean he would throw the ball about 25 to 28 times per game, completing about 17 to 19 passes per game and carrying the ball about 15 times per game. This would yield a quarterback rating in the 138 to 140 range, which would put him in the bottom half of the Pac-12. Thompson lacks the game experience Wilson has, so it is hard to really know what to expect from him and what he is capable of. He also has a history of injuries and does not have the size of Wilson, so durability is a question.

Looking at the stats, neither Utah quarterback would need to be elite to help lead Utah to a lot of wins in 2015. Because Wilson is not as good of a runner as Thompson and therefore cannot stress the defense as much in the option game, he needs to make up that production in the passing game. Thompson would need to be the more efficient quarterback (higher completion percentage and fewer turnovers) because his game will likely center on more consistently moving the ball where Wilson can lead a more explosive offense due to his stronger arm. Certain games against the more high-powered Pac-12 offenses will require more production from behind center, where games against some of the weaker Pac-12 teams might not require the quarterback to do as much. Overall, with a great running back, defense, and special teams, the Utah quarterback will have to make just enough plays while minimizing mistakes to put Utah in contention for a Pac-12 title.