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Utah football 2014: In battle of QBs, incumbent Wilson wins job over OU transfer

Utah Utes quarterback Travis Wilson.
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

After Saturday's scrimmage, not even the Utah Utes football coaches themselves knew who won the starting quarterback job.

Coach Kyle Whittingham, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick holed themselves in a room with game film, some snacks, some couches, TVs and remote control devices large enough to disseminate all the facts.

Some rooters sat in the corner of Travis Wilson, the incumbent who was the starter until he suffered an intracranial brain injury last year. Others were voting for challenger Kendal Thompson, the transfer from Oklahoma and the son of OU football great, QB Charles Thompson.

In essence, you had two comeback kids, one using the tired slogan of "More Of The Same" and the other who goes by a hopeful credo of "Change" fighting for one position. Washington only dreams of having this kind of drama. In all actuality, D.C. had nothin' on what was going down in a room where Utes coaches deliberated on which QB candidate would start against Idaho State.

On Mon. Aug. 18, the coaches had made their decision on who the quarterback-elect would be: Travis Wilson. In the end, Wilson got the job because of his knowledge of the system, his game-day experience and his pass completion percentage. But, just barely, according to the coaches themselves.

The election itself to name a starting QB had more twists and turns than Watergate, but first, let's look at how the candidates fared at what coaches determined was the deciding factor: Saturday's scrimmage.

Wilson, the incumbent, threw for 145 yards Saturday on 11-of-22 passing and two touchdowns, and ran for another 53 and a touchdown on Saturday. At times, he looked like he was all the way back from the brain injury that nearly killed his football career.

On other plays, Wilson looked like the same guy from the past two years who ran awkwardly like a baby giraffe when plays broke down, throwing repeated pick sixes during critical points in games--or who galloped down field, diving headfirst into tacklers when he could have easily slid out of harm's way.

For Wilson to show moxie in the huddle on Saturday was courageous, however, it was kind of dumb considering he had an injury to his thinking cap less than a year ago. To put more perspective on this story, Saturday's scrimmage was the first tackle football game Wilson played since that injury last November--leading this writer to think dude was crazy, and others to believe his challenger won the job.

Kendal Thompson, the challenger, came in from Oklahoma, the school where his father Charles starred in the 1980s, with a point to prove. He had been at OU for three years, playing in just a handful of games for the Sooners, and he wanted to play some real games at some point in his career.

Throughout fall camp, Thompson moved up a depth chart filled with five quarterbacks based on his ability to think clearly in critical situations, using his mobility and game smarts to get out of jams. On Saturday, you saw precisely that from Thompson, who led his offense down the field on scoring drives, throwing for 129 yards on 8-of-18 passing and two touchdowns. He also had 89 yards rushing and two more TDs.

In Thompson, you see the escapability that made Brian Johnson a star at Utah. On the last play of the scrimmage on Saturday, for example, Thompson showed why he could be special. On a broken play, he dodged pressure in the pocket, took a hit, kept his balance and tip-toed down the sideline for a 44-yard touchdown.

On the flip side, you also saw that Thompson, at 6-feet-2 inches and 192 pounds, stands five inches shorter and is 40 pounds lighter than Wilson. Thompson doesn't possess Wilson's arm strength and he can't throw a deep ball. Like Johnson, Thompson will have to rely on receivers getting their yards after the catch. The other catch is that Thompson's the new guy on campus.

In a physical Pac-12 Conference that requires teams to be deep and durable throughout, Wilson appears to be a better overall fit based on his sizable height and weight advantage. Football is not boxing though, and Wilson has shown erratic qualities the past two years.

Throwing nearly as many interceptions (22) as touchdowns (23) is one reason many believed Wilson would lose his starting job to Thompson. The other is Wilson has a tendency to take unnecessary contact.

If you go by mere scrimmage stats alone, the 6-foot-2 inch, 192-pound Thompson would be your starter. In the final analysis, however, the Utah coaching staff went with other things.

Only time will tell if Utah Utes coaches made the right choice. Wilson got the job against Idaho State, but any slip-up, or God forbid, serious injury, will bring about the change that many thought was coming. In the meantime, Thompson is waiting in the wings.

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