- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Identity is why Dennis Erickson decided to become Utah's offensive coordinator. He has one and Utah's offense didn't last fall.
Erickson, one of the seminal minds behind the spread passing attack, is a football coach at heart. At 65, he's not ready to go softly into the night after four decades of X's and O's. Or go play golf and fish every day.
Meanwhile, Utah's offense ranked 11th in yards and eighth in scoring in the Pac-12 last year, as the Utes missed the postseason for the first time since 2002.
"The biggest thing is what was their identity -- what were they trying to do?" Erickson said. "They obviously had some injury issues at quarterback."
It's fairly understandable why the Utes offense sputtered last fall. Even before starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was lost for the season to injury, it was clear his arm strength was no longer there. The job ultimately went to true freshman Travis Wilson, and starting a first-year player at quarterback is rarely ideal. Toss in a struggling offensive line, and that's a recipe for yards and points to be lacking.
But it's more than that. Utah has had five different offensive coordinators since 2005, Kyle Whittingham's first season as head coach after Urban Meyer bolted for Florida. The Utes have employed a variety of schemes during that span, and Whittingham previously went the elder statesman route with Norm Chow, but that lasted only a year before Chow became head coach at Hawaii.
Whittingham and Erickson didn't know each other well before Whittingham first reached out about five weeks ago. But the idea grew on Erickson, who got an OK from his wife, Marilyn.
Erickson met with the Utes coaches before the hiring became official. While he's listed as "co-coordinator" with Brian Johnson, the coordinator last fall, Whittingham has acknowledged that Erickson has "last say."
Hiring Erickson strongly suggests that Whittingham now believes he promoted Johnson to coordinator too quickly. Johnson had been quarterbacks coach at Utah for only two years and was promoted to coordinator before he turned 25, making him the youngest FBS coordinator in the country. Heck, Johnson had been a Ute QB himself in 2008. He was barely older than many of the Utes players.
"I visited with Brian and I think he's an outstanding coach," Erickson said. "Everything I do is going to go through those guys. We need to sit down and decide what we want to do, decide what we want to hang our hat on."
While this functions as a sort of demotion for Johnson, it could pay off for him long-term. He now can learn from one of the better offensive minds out there, a guy who has seen just about everything you could see on a football field. Further, because Erickson is 65, there's no need to be competitive with him. This might actually push Johnson's career along faster than its already rapid pace. It's certainly something else to note on his résumé.
It's clear that Erickson wants to embrace a mentorship role.
"I hope so," he said. "I hope that's something I can help him do. We're going to talk about everything we do. Five or six years down the road, I think my experience is going to help him in his future. It's hard to be 25 years old and all the sudden you're a coordinator. It's a lot easier said than done."
The same can be said for passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick, who will continue to oversee receivers.
Of course, coordination isn't everything. Erickson will be a genius if he can get his offensive line to play better, particularly at tackle. In their second year of Pac-12 play, it became clear that the Utes lack the top-to-bottom talent and depth to compete in the top-half of the conference.
"Where we need to shore it up is get some speed on both sides of the football," Erickson said, echoing previous comments from Whittingham.
Erickson, who spent the past season helping his son coach high school football in Oregon, said he expected to get back into coaching after he was fired at Arizona State following the 2011 season. For one, he didn't want to go out on that experience.
"Obviously, how that ended, that was not a fun time, not how I wanted to go out on my career," he said. "It was pretty grinding on all of us that year."
Of the Sun Devils' surge this year, he said, "I thought they played extremely well. I was happy to see them have that success."
While there's just a bit of coyness when Erickson is asked if he'd want to run his own program again as a head coach, he seems excited with the idea of getting to be an assistant who obsesses only about schemes and game plans and not all the cumbersome administrative burdens a head coach deals with.
"This is the perfect fit for me right now," he said. "We've got a really good chance to be successful here."
2dChantel Jennings and Ted Miller