When Utah’s Brandon Cox talks about his maturation as a quarterback, he notes that he’s now using his eyes more than his legs. That’s a big reason he’s turned in his best spring and has transformed what was expected to be a coronation for juco transfer Troy Williams into a competition that will last into the fall.
But really, Cox is happy with both his eyes and his legs, and not just because he’s a true dual-threat quarterback. Cox is glad that his legs are just healthy and working after multiple injuries — most notably to his feet — helped derail his previous attempts to win the starting job, something that hasn't escaped head coach Kyle Whittingham's notice.
“It’s been great that he’s been able to play in every practice," Whittingham said. "His [background] is injuries have held him back. Just to have him out there on a daily basis has allowed him to really start to show what his capabilities are. He’s had a very good spring. He’s playing his best football right now. We always felt it was there, but it was one setback after another with injuries that didn’t allow him to show what he could do.”
With Williams out for the remainder of spring practices with an undisclosed injury, Cox turned in a strong performance in a scrimmage last week, throwing for 223 yards and three touchdowns. On Saturday, the Utes will gather for what Whittingham termed the most important scrimmage of the spring. Another efficient, productive performance will give legitimacy to Cox's campaign to become the Utes starter as a redshirt junior after three years laboring behind four-year starter Travis Wilson.
Cox doesn't see that time as a backup as wasted, as it helped him mature and learn the position and see how Wilson handled the ups and downs, of which there were plenty. Moreover, he's not only the lone veteran quarterback on the team, he's the only QB vying for the starting job who played in the Utes offense last year. True freshman Tyler Huntley was posting huge numbers for his Florida high school and Williams was doing the same at his Santa Monica College.
"Being in the program, going into my fourth year, being able to watch the guys in front of me, take the mental reps, helped me develop as a quarterback," Cox said.
That started with developing a better pocket presence and sticking with his downfield reads even when protection shows signs of faltering.
“Coming out of high school, I was antsy in the pocket," he said. "I didn’t have the the best offensive line in high school, so a lot of my big plays came out of scrambling, me making plays with my legs, looking downfield. Being young, I’d move around a lot and try to extend the play with my legs, but sometimes I didn’t have to.”
Cox, who ended up at Utah after originally committing to Arizona, enrolled early in 2013 and participated in spring practices. He saw his only playing time in 2014 against Idaho State. A foot injury knocked him out of spring practices as year ago.
These days, when a player reaches his junior year having never earned significant playing time, he's often written off. Cox admits he had times when he was discouraged and battled self-doubt.
“You start to get those thoughts, but that’s where faith comes in," he said. "I love this sport. I’ve played it since I was a little kid. I’d hate to give it up early. Everybody has to go through adversity at some point in their life. I was able to fight through it and come back even stronger.”
When it was announced Williams, who started his career at Washington, was transferring to Utah, more than a few folks wrote his name in as Wilson's heir apparent. Williams was formally a touted recruit, and he was the new thing. Cox was the guy who hadn't been able to win the job or even stay healthy.
Cox isn't backing down.
“I look at it as a challenge," he said. "I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. Football is about competition. I’ve always thrived in competitive settings.”
It's premature to look at Cox as the frontrunner for the starting job, but he's earned more than a few raised eyebrows this spring. At the very least, the competition now has legitimacy.
Said Cox, “It should make us all better.”