When it comes to problem-solving, Utes coaching staff in a class all its own

Utah coach Kyle Whittingham watches as the Utes and the USC Trojans compete at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham watches as the Utes and the USC Trojans compete at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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Let’s get right to the point. The best, most creative, innovative, problem-solving, game-adjusting, figure-it-out, can-do coaching staff in America, hands down, resides at the University of Utah.

Nobody else is close.

The rest of you sit down and be quiet.

This season, Kyle Whittingham, Morgan Scalley, Andy Ludwig and the rest of them have had every excuse to lose games. Every week injuries have piled on top of other injuries — first to a starter, then to his backup — and each week coaches have to cobble together another lineup and create a new scheme to fit it. It’s like they’re driving a car that keeps breaking down and as soon as one thing is fixed something else breaks and now they’re down to getting after-market parts and using glue and duct tape to keep the thing moving.

No other top-25 school has done more with less than Utah coaches. About half of their starters have missed significant playing time this year, and their two best offensive players haven’t played a down. Somehow, the Utes, who rank 98th nationally in total offense, are 6-1 and ranked 13th in this week’s national poll.

But how?

The Utes have captured national attention as big-time overachievers.

On Saturday night, the Utes beat USC in the L.A. Coliseum with another lineup they rebuilt after injuries sidelined eight starters, some of whom had replaced injured starters themselves. They beat the Heisman Trophy winner with a former walk-on quarterback, one who was No. 3 on the depth chart in training camp. They beat a lineup of blue-chip recruits with a defensive back playing running back.

During the USC game, the TV commentator was correct when he called the Ute coaches “problem solvers.”

They have another nationally televised showdown Saturday when they face No. 8-ranked Oregon. The Ducks’ only loss was a 36-33 decision to unbeaten Washington, which ranks No. 5 in this week’s polls.

The Utes are going to have to figure it out again. Help is not on the way. All season long they have been treading water while awaiting the return of Cam Rising, their injured all-conference quarterback, and Brant Kuithe, their injured all-conference tight end and future NFL draft pick. But over the weekend it was announced that they will no longer try to rejoin the team this season. They’ll claim a medical redshirt. They also learned that star linebacker Lander Barton, who was injured in the USC game, is out for the season.

Back to the drawing board.

Somehow the Utes, with one exception, have found a way to win each week. “It seems like every week there’s (another injury),” says defensive coordinator Scalley. “It’s just one of those deals. You can’t do anything about it, except to look at what you’re doing. We’ve looked at everything — is it our rehab, is it how we train, are there more injuries in morning practices, or is it in the afternoon, is it a hydration deal? Are we practicing smart, lifting smart or is it just a freak deal? It’s mostly a freak deal.”


The coaches have scrambled to fill in the gaps. Games have been used as quarterback tryouts, and they finally appear to have found one at midseason. Bryson Barnes — whom the media refers to as the “pig farmer” from tiny Milford (population 1,500) because his father owns just such a farm — played sparingly for three years. He was thrust into the starting lineup in the season opener when the team’s first two quarterbacks were injured. He has been in and out of the lineup since then, alternately losing the starting job to freshman Nate Johnson or sharing it with him, until he finally was made the full-time quarterback two games ago.

He was savvy and mostly brilliant against USC. He threw for 235 yards, three touchdowns and one nearly disastrous pick-six. He ran for 57 yards and another touchdown. He pulled off the biggest play of the night — a 26-yard run with 16 seconds left that put the Utes in position to kick the game-winning 38-yard field goal.

Whittingham was spot on when he said of Barnes, “He’s a warrior.”

Utah Utes offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig talks to members of the media after the first day of fall camp outside of the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.

When the Utes aren’t promoting reserve players into starting roles, they’re looking for other ways to fill in for missing players. In staff meetings, they began to look again for players who could play other positions. They found one in starting safety Sione Vaki.

They actually considered the move in the middle of last season when there were injuries and suspensions at running back. As Scalley recalls, “I said, ‘I hate to lose him (on defense), but we should look at Sione Vaki on offense.’ He has offensive experience and he’s really a twitchy guy.”

The Utes decided instead to move quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson from quarterback to running back and he played well; problem solved. But then injuries thinned the running backs again this year and, as Scalley says, “This year we were forced to try Vaki there.”

The Utes did the same thing with safety and future NFL star Eric Weddle years ago, playing him at running back and quarterback with great success, but he didn’t see nearly the amount of work that Vaki is getting. Vaki plays 80 to 90 reps a game, and it has paid off. Against Cal he rushed 15 times for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Against USC, he produced more than 200 yards from scrimmage, running nine times for 68 yards and catching five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He also had seven tackles in those games.

“We have to look at how we can utilize the skill sets of our players to win games,” says Scalley. “We look at that in recruiting. So much of what we do in recruiting is to get good raw material and then put the player in his best position.


“We also look for team players. We ask them how they would feel if we move them to a new position. You have to get a feel for what type of personality they are,” he continued. “Are they going to pout? Especially now when they can jump into the transfer portal. As a coach it’s tough, too. You don’t want to lose players that are helping on your side of the ball, but you do it to help the team.”

The Utes have moved several players to dramatically different positions the last couple of years — besides Vaki and Jackson, Tao Johnson (a high school quarterback who was recruited as a wide receiver and then moved to cornerback), Logan Bonner (quarterback to cornerback), Connor O’Toole (wide receiver to defensive end), Miki Suguturaga (defensive end to tight end).

Vaki is playing both ways, and that comes with added risk. Colorado’s Travis Hunter is a sensational two-way player, but missed some games due to an injury.

“It’s not just the volume,” says Scalley. “When you play cornerback or wide receiver, you’re not hitting so much, but at running back you’re getting hit every play and it takes a toll on the body.”

There’s one other challenge that is largely overlooked that the Utes have overcome, and it’s one that prepared them for the injury outbreak this season. The Utes rarely sign ready-to-play blue-chip recruits. They have to actually teach, coach and develop talent.

Utes on the air

No. 13 Utah 6-1)
vs. No. 8 Oregon (6-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: Fox
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM

“We are continuing to grow as a program and we are definitely getting more of those guys (blue-chip players) to visit and look at us,” says Scalley. “But we know where and who we are. We are looking for a specific type of player who buys into the culture and is about the team, a guy we can develop. (Head coach Kyle) Whittingham has done a good job of getting coaches who are good teachers, have an eye for talent and can develop it and manage it.”

Considering all the above, Utah coaches have done a remarkable job of winning the last two Pac-12 championships, especially in a league that includes bluebloods USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. But a third championship under current circumstances would be their greatest accomplishment since joining the Pac-12.

Utah Utes coach Morgan Scalley shouts instruction in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 during the season opener against Florida. The longtime defensive coordinator credits head coach Kyle Whittingham for building a staff of coaches who are good teachers, have an eye for talent and can develop it and manage it. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News