Utah ready to unleash new pass-first spread offense
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The idea of Utah taking the field with four receivers and whipping the football around on a regular basis seemed far-fetched not so long ago. But that's where the Utes are after coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged that his grind-it-out philosophy had hit a wall in the offense-obsessed Pac-12.
The college football world will get its first glimpse of the new up-tempo system Thursday night when the Utes host North Dakota in the season opener for both teams.
''I'm probably the most excited guy in the country to watch it,'' Whittingham said.
The offensive reins have been handed to new coordinator Troy Taylor and Whittingham has repeatedly said Taylor has the freedom to run it as he sees fit. The change made sense since Utah has never had a pass offense ranked higher than No. 9 in the Pac-12. It has ranked dead last three times.
The change in scheme should help, but a system without the players to run it doesn't. Enter quarterback Tyler Huntley and receiver Darren Carrington .
Huntley, a sophomore, has supplanted senior Troy Williams as the starter. Williams, a two-time captain, started 13 games in 2016 but Huntley is more of a dual-threat playmaker and Taylor preferred the additional skills.
''The offense just brings opportunity to make a lot of plays and just play football,'' Huntley said. ''It gives you a lot of options to do great things.''
But a pass-first offense works best with a receiver possessing elite skills, and Utah's receiver corps hadn't had one. That was before Carrington transferred from Oregon in late July after being dismissed from the Ducks soon after he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence. The senior comes in with 112 career receptions for 1,919 yards and 15 touchdowns and has been the clear-cut No. 1 from Day 1.
''He's been exactly what we expected,'' Whittingham said. ''A tremendously talented athlete. Fierce competitor on the practice field. ... Really down the field is where he's exceptional with the contested ball. You think he's covered, but he'll go up and make an acrobatic catch that very few players can make. He's a perfect fit for what coach Taylor wants to do offensively.''
Coaches have constantly praised the receivers as a group, but adding Carrington transforms the entire crew.
The Utes hope putting two more athletic threats in the starting lineup helps the offensive transition go smoother and faster.
Other things to watch when Utah hosts North Dakota:
SAFETY SHUFFLE: Utah starting strong safety Chase Hansen will be a game-time decision after an undisclosed injury kept him out for all of training camp. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior led the team with 90 tackles in 2016. Junior college transfer Corrion Ballard (6-3, 205) is slotted to start at free safety but will move to the strong side if Hansen can't go. Sophomore Philip Afia (6-1, 195) would then start at free safety with junior Marquise Blair (6-2, 190) rotating in.
NEW LINE ERA: Utah is replacing four players on the line who are now on NFL rosters. Left guard Salesi Uhatafe is the lone returner and he's switching from right guard. Junior Jackson Barton takes over for Denver Broncos starter Garett Bolles and senior Lo Falemaka will make his first career start at center. Junior college transfer Jordan Agasiva takes over at right guard and sophomore Darrin Paulo is expected to make his first start at right tackle.
EXPERIENCED ON `O': North Dakota returns nine starters on offense, including quarterback Keaton Studsrud, running back John Santiago, receivers De'mun Mercer and Noah Wanzek and three offensive linemen. Santiago was named STATS FCS preseason All-America first-team at kick returner and first-team All-Big Sky at running back in 2016. He rushed for 983 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Studsrud threw for 2,027 yards and 14 touchdowns with two interceptions and a 56.0 completion percentage in 2016.
HARRIS OUT: North Dakota cornerback Deion Harris is out for the season with a reported leg injury. The 6-3, 200-pound senior was named second-team All-America in 2016 after leading the Big Sky with five interceptions. He led the FCS with three interceptions returned for touchdowns.
STRONG AT SAFETY: Four-year Fighting Hawks starting strong safety Cole Reyes is back as the preseason Big Sky defensive player of the year. He leads the team with 200 career tackles and posted three interceptions in 2016. Reyes had 70 tackles, 6.5 for loss and eight pass breakups in 2016.
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25