Utah's quarterback steps onto the national stage with a marquee opportunity
The Heisman Trophy has come to symbolize gaudy statistics in the modern era. Video-game numbers are not necessarily what define the contributions of Tyler Huntley to the No. 5-ranked Utah Utes, who play for the Pac-12 championship and potential berth in the College Football Playoff on Friday against Oregon.
"We're not throwing for 300, 400 yards per game," said Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham. "That's not who we are, you've got to play to your strengths. We've got one of the best tailbacks in the country in Zack Moss."
Indeed, Moss is one of the nation's premier running backs, leading the Pac-12 in rushing by almost 200 yards over the next-most productive ball carrier. As a team, Utah rushed 515 times in the regular season, while Huntley passed 249 times.
But as much as the Heisman now stands for eye-popping statistics, the award often recognizes the stars of contending teams — usually quarterbacks. That does define Huntley's contributions, and provides the foundation for Utah's pitch to send the quarterback to New York for the 2019 Heisman Trophy ceremony.
"I believe he should be in the conversation, absolutely," Whittingham said, while adding a perhaps ironic caveat: "Just look at the numbers. Compare them side-by-side."
Huntley isn't throwing for a bevy of touchdowns like LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, who concluded the regular season with 44. Huntley heads into Friday's Pac-12 Championship Game with 16 passing scores. At 2,773 yards, Huntley's just a bit over half the yardage Anthony Gordon racked up in Washington State's air-raid offense.
But the numbers supporting Huntley's case are there. He is completing 75.5 percent of his attempts — and these aren't throws to the boundary that function like a pitch would in an old-school set, or dump-offs just over the line of scrimmage.
And, as Whittingham suggests, let's compare them side-by-side. Huntley is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt, putting him in company with Heisman contenders Burrow, Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma, and injured Alabama star Tua Tagovailoa. His 14.75 per-completion average outpaces Burrow and is just behind Hurts.
Whittingham cited ESPN QBR — "in my opinion, the best barometer," he said — and Huntley ranks in the top five along with Burrow, Hurts, Tagovailoa and Ohio State's Justin Fields.
Another number that supports Huntley's case: 34:52.5. That's Utah's average time of possession, second in the nation, and what Whittingham called a crucial element of the Utes' defensive success.
Utah heads into a matchup with Oregon that is critical to the Utes' playoff aspirations allowing 11.3 points per game. Only fellow playoff hopefuls Georgia and Clemson allow fewer points.
A low-key star to the defense, Huntley's efficiency in the passing game keeps his side on the field, and keeps the defense fresh to wreak havoc when possessions change.
"We wouldn’t be here without him, I can say that with absolute confidence," Whittingham said of Huntley's contribution to the Pac-12 championship push. "He’s the leader of the leaders. Every team has one guy everyone looks to, and Tyler is that one guy for us."
Huntley's cannon arm and ability to make breath-taking plays with feet were evident before this season. In 2018, he paced the Utes to their best scoring stretch since the Alex Smith-quarterbacked team of '04. But an injury in November sidelined Huntley from last year's Pac-12 Championship Game opportunity, and Utah scored just three points in a loss to Washington.
He's healthy this year — and so are Moss and Britain Covey, both of whom were injured in the 2018 title tilt — and has an opportunity to make a case on the national stage to Heisman voters who might have slept on Huntley.
The Pac-12 Championship Game has been good to past Heisman hopefuls staking their claim to New York. Marcus Mariota bombarded Arizona in 2014 to lock up the first stiff-arm trophy in Oregon's history, and Christian McCaffrey used it the next year as a showcase for his all-around game to earn him an invite.
A standout performance against an excellent Oregon defense could provide the catalyst to launch #HuntleyForHeisman into high-gear.
The quarterback's health this season has certainly played a role in his part in a conference championship pursuit, and so has Huntley's adapting to a new scheme.
Troy Taylor, Utah's offensive coordinator a season ago, accepted the head-coaching position at Sacramento State — and he's done well, with the Hornets hosting an FCS playoff game a day after and not far from the Pac-12 Championship Game in Levi's Stadium.
With the vacancy, Whittingham turned to a familiar face: Andy Ludwig. Ludwig coordinated the offense at Utah from 2005 through the undefeated '08 campaign. His most recent stop saw Vanderbilt rank in the top half of the SEC in passing offense in both 2017 and '18.
"Tyler has just been like a sponge, absorbing everything Andy has been preaching and teaching for the last 10 months," Whittingham said. "It's just been a great combination."
And it's been a two-way street, as Whittingham detailed.
"[Ludwig] expressed to me that Tyler was probably the most skilled quarterback he's ever had the chance to work with athletically and all the way around," he said. "A guy like Andy Ludwig, and the guys he's coached and where he's been, that’s a pretty big statement."
Indeed, some of the quarterbacks with whom Ludwig's worked include Kellen Clemens at Oregon; Utah legend Brian Johnson; Ryan Lindley at San Diego State; and another Heisman Trophy hopeful, David Carr at Fresno State.
Comparing Huntley to Carr's 2001, when he finished fifth in the balloting, the Utah quarterback has him beat in yards per attempt, yards per completion, completion percentage, and touchdown-to-interception ratio.
So while the numbers might not on the surface "Heisman" — shout out to that guy at the 2016 Rose Bowl Game — digging beneath the surface reveals a worthy contender in Tyler Huntley. Friday is his opportunity to show it to the nation.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.