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QB race the X-factor for Utah’s Pac-12 title hopes

Steve Conner/Icon Sportswire

Utah football made remarkable progress within the Pac-12 Conference over the last two seasons, reaching nine wins in 2014 and capping 2014 with 10. The next logical step in the program’s growth is a South Division title and a place in the conference championship game.

Doing so in 2016 hinges largely on an ongoing quarterback race, pitting three candidates for the spot Travis Wilson held for much of the previous four years: Brandon Cox, Tyler Huntley and Troy Williams.

“I’m confident in all three of them,” said offensive tackle J.J. Dielman said at last month’s Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood. “They all bring a different set of skills to the table. We’re really lucky in that instance.”

All three may have something unique they can provide the Utah offense, but how it fits into the overall framework of the Utes’ system could make or break their conference title chances.

It’s no coincidence that 2015 marked Utah’s breakout year; it was the first season the Utes gained relatively consistent quarterback play since joining the conference.

Nearly every year since Brian Johnson helped the Utes to a perfect finish in the 2008 season, including a Sugar Bowl beating of Alabama, Utah has struggled with quarterback injuries.

Wilson — the talented, dual-threat play-maker — failed to establish much of a rhythm through his first three years, but was finally healthy for most of 2015. He passed for 13 touchdowns and rushed for a career-best seven, giving Utah enough of a threat at the position to keep defenses honest against running backs Devontae Booker and Joe Williams.

Utah’s next quarterback doesn’t have an impossibly high standard to meet: Be consistent and keep defenses balanced. However, more than a half-decade of inconsistency proves that to be easier said than done.

“We’ve got youth in Tyler. We’ve got a grinder and a veteran in Brandon Cox. Then we’ve got a guy who’s been everywhere and has been successful, and that’s Troy,” Dielman said. “We’re in a good spot there. I’m excited to see who they choose, because I’m just as curious as you guys.”

Whoever of the three it may be, head coach Kyle Whittingham isn’t tipping his hand.

He said Williams — a transfer from Washington who spent a season at Santa Monica Community College before returning to the Pac-12 — had an early lead. However, his shoulder injury sustained in spring put the trio “right where [Utah] left off at the end of spring,” Whittingham said.

That means, “all three guys getting an equal amount of reps with the ones and the twos, see how things sort out.”

Williams certainly has his supporters for the job. Among them: Washington defensive back Kevin King. Williams’ former teammate vouched for the quarterback’s credentials.

“Troy’s the man. He’s the guy you want to have on your team. He’s a guy you want to play with,” King said. “He’ll have your back to the end.

“We’re all rooting for Troy to get the job. Utah, they’ve got a great quarterback that could really lead them. In every game they play, expect one, I hope he plays well.”

In King’s scenario, if Williams were to play well against 11 teams — Washington notwithstanding — the Utes would be sitting pretty for that landmark Pac-12 Championship Game berth.

What about his competitors?

Huntley, a high three-star recruit, brings excitement. He’s the future at Utah, but the Utes have the pieces to make a championship run in the present. Whether the youngster from Florida is ready remains a pressing question.

Cox has the most familiarity with the Utes’ system, but injuries have hindered his opportunity to put them into game action.

Whittingham and his staff have a choice that could define the next step in the program’s evolution. Expect it to be made judiciously.

QB race the X-factor for Utah’s Pac-12 title hopes

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