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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

Doug Robinson: Another football season, another offensive coordinator

By Doug Robinson, Deseret News

Published: Thu, Aug. 7 5:25 p.m. MDT

 Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen is interviewed following University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City Monday, Aug. 4, 2014.

Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen is interviewed following University of Utah football practice in Salt Lake City Monday, Aug. 4, 2014.

(Ravell Call, Deseret News)

The University of Utah football team is starting another season with a new offensive coordinator. His name is ….

Wait, Robinson, this is a rerun; we’ve already seen this movie.

As I was saying, his name is Dave Christensen, and new coordinators are a way of life at Utah. Welcome to Gridiron Groundhog Day, where Kyle Whittingham keeps living the same season over and over and over — with injured quarterbacks and anemic offenses — until the Utes get it right.

Let’s bring you up to date. During Whittingham’s nine seasons as head coach, he has had two special teams coordinators, two defensive coordinators and SEVEN offensive coordinators, six in the last six years — Andy Ludwig, Dave Schramm, Aaron Roderick, Norm Chow, Brian Johnson, Dennis Erickson and now Christensen. At this rate, Whittingham should hire office temps. He has tried young guys (24-year-old Brian Johnson), old guys (66-year-old Erickson), BYU guys (Norm Chow), in-house guys (Roderick, Schramm), and co-coordinator guys (twice — Schramm/Roderick, Johnson/Erickson). The results have pretty much been the same. The Utes haven’t finished in the top 30 in total offense since 2005. They have finished the last five years ranked 54th, 52nd, 109th, 107th and 76th, respectively, in total offense.

To be fair, two of those seven OCs — Ludwig and Chow — left Utah for other jobs, but the other five lost their jobs because the Ute offense didn’t produce. In what has become an annual rite of winter, Whittingham demoted Johnson and hired Erickson in February 2013, although officially they were listed as co-coordinators, and then he demoted both of them and hired Christensen 10 months later.

“I felt we needed to take another step forward and I wanted to get one voice in the room that would run the show,” Whittingham said after Tuesday’s practice. “We tried the co-coordinator thing and it didn’t sit well with me. It was my fault. My response is to remedy it when it’s not working.”

Christensen is a tall, former offensive lineman for the University of Washington who struck up a friendship with Whittingham when they were assistant coaches at Idaho State 25 years ago. Whittingham and Christensen and their wives socialized off the field.

“Of all the coaches on the staff, we were closest with them,” he says. They stayed in touch over the years since, and when Christensen was fired as Wyoming’s head coach last winter, Whittingham hired him as OC.

Christensen built a reputation as an OC at Missouri from 1997 to 2008. During each of his last three seasons there, the Tigers ranked in the top eight nationally in total offense and set several school offensive records, but it took years to reach that level of play. During his first few years on the job, the Tigers were an average offensive team until Christensen switched from a double-tight-end, power attack to the spread offense.

“We scrapped everything and started over,” he says. “I believed we couldn’t run a conventional offense and compete in that conference. We had to spread out the defense.”

Christensen visited other schools to immerse himself in the nuances of the spread attack and he has been using it since then. During Christensen’s five years as head coach, Wyoming improved from 107th in total offense to 22nd last season, but two losing seasons and a porous defense cost him his job. Christensen believes he has the personnel to make a more immediate impact on Utah’s offense.

“The players here are more suited for the spread and what I want to do than they were at Missouri,” he says.

And what Christensen wants to do is a no-huddle, up-tempo spread attack that runs off 80-plus plays a game.

His offense begins, of course, with the quarterback, and there is the rub for the Utes. As Whittingham puts it, “The biggest issue has been keeping the quarterback healthy.” The Utes’ starting quarterback hasn’t played a complete season since 2008. That has meant throwing inexperienced quarterbacks into the fray — Jon Hays, who came to Utah after NAIA Nebraska-Omaha dropped its program; walk-on Adam Schulz; and true freshman Travis Wilson. Wilson, a junior, is a three-year starter who missed the last three games of the 2013 season with a career-threatening concussion. This year he has been challenged by Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, who is more of a running threat than a passer.

“(Christensen) is, first of all, an established commodity,” says Whittingham. “He was very successful at Missouri and his offenses were very good at Wyoming. His philosophy and his scheme suit ours very well.”

So, it’s another season, another OC and another reason for the Utes to hope for something more on offense.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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1. gdog3finally
West Jordan, Utah,
Aug. 7, 2014

Making Brian Johnson the OC was too early a promotion, one that gave Johnson not much choice to leave Utah when he was demoted. Because if he accepted that status, his coaching career would have had a greater likelihood of going south. So Utah lost a valuable figure on its' staff. The Chow hire made sense and I think would have paid off if Chow asn't offered the head coaching job at Hawaii. He was only here a year and Utah was super thin at QB in 2011. At that time it was Jordan Wynn and his 4 shoulder surgeries atop the depth chart with nobody behind him but the good soldier Jon Hayes (who gave it his all). Moving on, Dennis Erickson was a good hire. That didn't work out last year but Utah had an unusual tally of crucial injuries on that offense. I was surprised that Erickson stayed on the staff when Whittingham hired Christensen but I am glad to have both of them here. I look for Utah's offense to turn the corner this season.

2. MyPerspective
Salt Lake City, UT,
Aug. 7, 2014

Wow, this is a new angle for a Des News sports reporter. Here's the quote you are searching for, Mr. Robinson...

"Whittingham said after Tuesday’s practice. “We tried the co-coordinator thing and it didn’t sit well with me. It was my fault. My response is to remedy it when it’s not working.”

There ya go, Doug. Coach Whitt acknowledged that it's his fault. Can we move on, now?

3. Big 12 Call Yet?
Ogden, UT,
Aug. 7, 2014

He'll get our NASCAR offense going like we expect.

He already has proven he can put up 40 points a game against big boy teams.

We will be the surprise of the PAC 12 and go 7-5 and enjoy a very good PAC 12 season.

Go utes!

4. 10CC
Bountiful, UT,
Aug. 7, 2014

I didn't know that Christensen was an O-lineman.

That's good news, because between he & Jim Harding, we have really good OL competence where everything on offense starts: Up Front.

Also, though the record didn't reflect it, Utah got significantly better on offense in 2013 over 2012, even with a more difficult schedule, which bodes well for our offensive staff capitalizing on the talent this year and getting back on the right track.

Our easiest year in the PAC was 2011, and the rest of the PAC improved significantly after that year. It's a wicked conference to be in, but I think we're poised to fight our way up the ladder.

One thing is certain: being in the P5 and especially being in the PAC is highly, highly preferable to being a top team in the G5 tier of college football.

5. WhoRtheUtes???
Elko, NV,
Aug. 7, 2014

I am excited to see the utes have a solid 5 win season.