Run game still a priority for Utah despite new offense
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Most of the talk about Utah during spring practice has focused on its new pass-heavy offense led by quarterback guru Troy Taylor. The new offensive coordinator brought a system that puts the onus on the quarterback in an attempt to correct the Utes lack of consistent passing game since joining the Pac-12.
The change is a significant one for coach Kyle Whittingham, but he emphasized at Saturday's spring game that the run game will not be an afterthought.
''I don't care what system you're running, if you can't run the ball effectively, everything else is very difficult,'' Whittingham said.
''If we can continue to be as efficient and productive in the run game, maybe not amass as many total yards because we're going to throw the ball a little more. The key is, when you do run, you have to run effectively and physically.''
The Utes' rushing offense has ranked in the top four in the Pac-12 the last three years with a 1,200-plus-yard runner in each of those seasons. That pass game has never ranked higher than No. 9 since joining the league in 2011. That's why Whittingham made the change in offensive coordinators, bringing Taylor from Eastern Washington, where the team lead the FCS with 401.0 passing yards per game, ranked No. 2 in total offense (529.6) and No. 3 in scoring offense (42.4 points per game) during his one year as co-offensive coordinator in 2016.
But the run game is still essential to Taylor's system. The backs will be involved in the pass game more than previously and will even line up in the slot. Whittingham said the run schemes aren't drastically different.
''It's not really how many times you run, but when you run, efficiency and production has to be there,'' Whittingham said.
Taylor spent the spring evaluating his new players' characteristics and seeing who does what. That's been a bit difficult in itself due to injuries.
Junior Armand Shyne is still recovering from a season-ending leg injury, but was leading the team in rushing, after Joe Williams retired momentarily, when he suffered the non-contact injury.
Zach Moss had been banged up and limited during spring, then left the spring game with an arm injury that left his forearm bandaged and in a sling. Whittingham didn't think the injury was serious and said it could be a broken bone than keeps him out six to eight weeks. Moss finished second on the team in rushing yards last season.
Senior Jordan Howard and three-star incoming freshman T.J. Green are also in the mix.
The injuries gave plenty of opportunity to sophomore Devonta'e Henry-Cole this spring. He ran for two touchdowns in both of the last two scrimmages and showed some toughness to go along with his high-end speed.
''It's a speed offense, so that's good for me with my speed and everything,'' Henry-Cole said. ''It was kind of tiring at first because it's a new offense and everything is fast paced (compared to) last year. As a unit, I think we did pretty well.
''I wanted to show that I'm capable to play in the Pac-12. ... Just staying humble and keep competing and fighting for the starting job or for playing time.''
Taylor added, ''He's quick. He's electric when he gets the ball. I think he's going to be a good player for us.''
Taylor said the players have gotten at least a taste of 85-90 percent of the offense with one practice left this spring. The spring game didn't reveal much about the new system as a cautious approach kept many expected contributors off the field.
''Just in general, trying to install as much offense as possible,'' Taylor said. ''Trying to have them obtain and learn as much offense as possible. ... Not all of it perfect, but at least they've been exposed to it. Then we'll build upon that, hopefully, on their own in the summer and then fall camp.
''I think (the backs) caught the ball better as the spring went on. Obviously, it wasn't something they did a ton of in the past. ... We've got to continue to recruit guys that are multidimensional that can run the ball, protect and catch the ball. So it's kind of a unique position for us. But those guys have done a good job grasping it.''
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