SALT LAKE CITY — Tyler Huntley is calling this the hardest stretch of his football life.
Utah has lost five of six games and the quarterback is coming off a three-interception, one-fumble effort in a loss to No. 15 Washington State.
The quarterback isn’t solely to blame for the struggles and the sophomore is continuing to grow in first-year offensive coordinator Troy Taylor’s new system.
The scheme is pass-first and asks a lot of the signal caller. And Huntley’s athleticism is what makes him special, so the Utes utilize him regularly in the run game. He’s the team’s second-leading rusher with 432 yards and makes the decisions on read-option rushes and run-pass options. His average of 298.1 yards of total offense ranks No. 20 in the nation and his 64.9 completion percentage is No. 18.
The offense is demanding with the opportunity to score points in bunches, and Huntley has walked the line between risk and reward throughout the season.
“I’m the quarterback, so I feel the pressure that I need to make a play when we’re down,” Huntley said. “Or I feel the pressure that I need to make a play when we need a touchdown. There’s probably .2 seconds that you have to make a decision — either run it, throw it, get down, get out of bounds.”
Turnovers hadn’t been a huge issue for Huntley before Saturday, but that fine line between making a play and taking a loss has been present all season. Huntley’s first interception Saturday was clearly forced as he bought time by rolling right, then threw back across his body into the middle of the field. He’s also taken several sacks/losses this season trying to scramble out of harm’s ways.
But that athleticism often leads to big gains as he escapes defenders to run or throw.
“I’ve got a lot of decisions, but that comes with quarterbacking,” Huntley said. “I knew what I signed up for. I’ve got to step up my game. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I’ve got to do better and we’ve got to do better. … We’re just a young team and we’re learning so much this season.”
Utah was rolling against lesser competition early in the season as it started 4-0 but a shoulder injury sidelined Huntley for 2 ½ games. The offense took on a different look with backup Troy Williams, who isn’t the same type of running threat. Huntley thinks they lost some rhythm during the recovery process and the team has yet to fully get it back.
Injuries across the board have hurt continuity on offense during a season in which the Utes have new starters at quarterback, running back and four offensive line positions. Darren Carrington transferred from Oregon as the new top option at receiver and he missed the last game with an undisclosed injury. The Utes were down to their No. 4 guard last week and their 27 sacks allowed are tied for No. 106 in the nation.
There’s been a ton of newness on the offensive side of the ball in 2017. The goal was to improve a perennially underachieving pass game but then the run game suffered. Huntley has been dynamic in spots, but has also gotten in trouble by trying to do too much at times.
The Utes have continued to talk about cutting down on too many mistakes at different times and haven’t been able to truly find consistency. There hasn’t been one constant issue to solely focus on.
That’s been life for Utah in 2017 as the team goes through the growing pains under a first-year coordinator with a scheme vastly different than the ground-and-pound ways that have defined coach Kyle Whittingham’s career.
“He’s a dynamic player, he’s a guy that makes plays, makes things happen,” Whittingham said. “By the same token, the No. 1 job of the offense, other than scoring points, is to protect the football. We weren’t doing a bad job of that, necessarily, until this week. He’s very athletic, so you don’t want to completely take that away from him. … We’ve just got to do a better job of taking care of the football and Tyler playing within the scheme. I don’t think Tyler’s being completely reckless. He understands the value of protecting the football as well as anybody.”