Growth, consistency help Utah’s Huntley earn starting QB job
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Tyler Huntley was a bit of a wild man on the field as a freshman quarterback for Utah. The elite athleticism was there, but he wasn’t really running the offense.
Utes coaches say that’s the biggest difference for the now-sophomore, who was named the 2017 starter over a returning two-time captain in senior Troy Williams.
“When he first got here, he was making erratic throws as he escaped and putting the ball in bad spots,” coach Kyle Whittingham said Tuesday. “Now he’s escaping and making great decisions. He’s doing a better job of keeping his eyes downfield and extending and throwing the ball instead of just running every time.
“From last fall to now, it’s a whole different guy. He’s become a guy that’s working within the framework of the offense instead of improvising.”
Many believed the experience of Williams — who threw for 2,757 yards in 13 starts last season — would give him an upper hand in the competition. But the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Huntley’s consistency during fall camp earned him the nod, according to Whittingham and new offensive coordinator Troy Taylor.
“I’m just more mature and I know what I’m doing on the field,” Huntley said. “I feel like I know where I’m going with the ball and I know when to take my shots and when not to.
“I just know when to make a play with my feet. I know when to make a play with my arm.”
Taylor is known for fast-paced offenses that give talented quarterbacks a chance to put up big numbers. He coached Washington quarterback Jake Browning, the reigning Pac-12 offensive player of the year, in high school and helped Eastern Washington lead the FCS with 401.0 passing yards per game as co-offensive coordinator last season. Eastern Washington also ranked second in total offense and third in scoring offense in 2016.
Taylor made the final decision with input from Whittingham and the rest of the staff. He said he doesn’t consider age a factor when evaluating quarterbacks, and that Huntley’s upside and playmaking ability outweighed his lack of experience.
“That’s always a question,” Taylor acknowledged. “Experience is really important, but all the great ones have had to get it at some point, whether you’re Tom Brady or whatnot.
“He’ll be nervous when he plays, but I believe he’ll play through any mistakes that he makes and he’ll gain that experience and become a better player.”
Whittingham called this year’s quarterback decision the toughest he’s made in his 13 years leading the program. He knows the Utes must become much more proficient in the passing game if Utah is going to compete for Pac-12 titles, and the hiring of Taylor and the change from a grind-it-out, run-first offense have been signs of that acceptance.
Whittingham is willing to endure some growing pains from his young QB.
“We’re patient to an extent,” Whittingham said. “We don’t want him looking over his shoulder, but by the same token, he’s got to produce like everyone else on the field does.”
Huntley doesn’t lack for confidence. He told reporters that he absolutely expected to be starting this early in his career when his signed as the 2015 Florida Gatorade Football Player of the Year. Running back Zack Moss was high school teammates with Huntley, and the two will be the starters in the backfield when the season begins Aug. 31 against North Dakota. He isn’t surprised, either.
“He was a freshman starting quarterback (in high school),” Moss said. “He had a big thing on his shoulders and always carried it the right way. When I came into the school in my senior year, we already knew who the leader was because he always demanded a lot of guys and he’s continued to do that here.
“He makes plays out of nothing. When plays break down, that’s probably when he’s at his best. ... He’s real similar to (Heisman Trophy winner) Lamar Jackson in a lot of ways. I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do for us this year.”
NOTES: Safety Chase Hansen, the team’s leading tackler in 2016, has returned from an undisclosed injury that kept him out the entirety of fall camp. He is limited in practice, but Whittingham said the plan is to have him ready and starting in the season opener. Center Lo Falemaka has also returned to the field after being carried off the field on Aug. 3.
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