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Utah football 2014: QB race between Wilson, Thompson a dead heat after scrimmage

Utah Utes quarterback Kendal Thompson.
Utah Utes quarterback Kendal Thompson.
Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images

Quarterback Travis Wilson finally got to hit someone, and get hit, on Sat. Aug. 16 during the Utah Utes second scrimmage of fall camp at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utes QB Kendal Thompson, on the other hand, tended to avoid contact unlike his competition--a strategy which may give the Oklahoma transfer the upper hand as the decision to name a starting quarterback nears its exciting conclusion.

Before Saturday, doctors and team officials held Wilson out of all preceding full-contact drills and scrimmages due to an intracranial brain injury he suffered last fall. The 6-foot-7-inch Wilson looked no worse for the wear as he played his first tackle football in months. If it sounds like the opening scenes from any tear-jerking sports blockbuster, that's because, in the end, this wild story no reporter could ever make up might have a Hollywood ending.

Wilson not only threw the ball better than he had in a previous scrimmage--he ran it with authority, too. This from a kid whose career was thought to be over a few months ago. Then again, there is Thompson, son of a legend at Oklahoma who never made it big like his dad, the great Charles Thompson, did.

And so begins, or continues, this wild yet exciting quarterback controversy. If there was one opening argument in the saga unfolding between Wilson or Thompson, you would be somewhat confused there was a QB controversy after watching Wilson barrel down the field as Saturday's scrimmage unfolded at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Watching Wilson run is like watching a baby giraffe realize he has legs and can run pretty fast. The gait isn't always pretty--but it gets the job done. When you realized Wilson was also taking on live contact for the first time, it was like watching Bambi cross a busy intersection--you probably shuddered after Wilson took that first hit.

Despite missing several key starters including wide receivers Dres Anderson, Kenneth Scott--possibly still in shock after enduring Friday's Ice Bucket Challenge--and tight end Westlee Tonga who were all held out as precautionary measures, Wilson took all the hits and still he moved the ball down the field.

Extending plays with both his arm and his feet, Wilson threw for 145 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-22 passing--and ran for another score with 53 yards on 11 carries. Not bad for a player who hadn't played real football since he suffered that injury to his brain.

Wilson's throws were on the money most of the time. On one TD, he pump faked out of his play action, zinging a 38-yard laser to wide receiver Kenric Young. Andre Lewis was Wilson's second beneficiary on an 18-yard howitzer from Wilson, again off of play-action. Sprinkle in a 6-yard scamper by Wilson, and you have yourself a pretty good day by Wilson's standards.

While Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was pleased with Wilson's progress, he was a bit concerned about Wilson's devil-may-care attitude when it came to running the show.

“He had no hesitation. He didn’t shy away from anything,” Whittingham said post-game, acting like a proud papa giraffe. “In fact, in my opinion, he was a little too aggressive. You want to be smart. We have the quarterback run element to our offense, but you still do not want to take those direct hits. You want to try to dive into those gaps of daylight — and so he was probably too overzealous if anything today.”

Even still, Whittingham wouldn't name Wilson as his starter, saying he'd rather look at more game film over the weekend in his office and make his decision on Monday.

That's because Thompson gave the Utah coaches no choice but to think long and hard about naming the OU transfer as the starter. Despite being in fall camp for just a few weeks now, the 6-foot-3 Thompson has rapidly closed the gap between himself and his 6-foot-7 competition.

Part of Thompson's rapid rise has had to do with a reasonable understanding of new offensive coordinator Dave Christensen's system--and part of it has to do with the fact that Thompson makes you think back to another speedy Utes signal caller, the unforgettable Brian Johnson.

Early in his career, BJ made more dumb decisions with the football than just about anyone who ever put on a Utah jersey. By the time Johnson was done, however, the Houston native led the Utes to a Sugar Bowl victory over mighty Alabama as a fifth-year senior by using football smarts he'd developed over time.

That's right; Johnson wasn't born with the ability to out-think his opponent--similar to Thompson, who didn't come to Utah thinking he knew the playbook already. Thompson has rapidly ascended the depth chart because he's willing to study long hours learning Christensen's complex schemes.

Over time, Ute fans will recall that Johnson learned when to leave the pocket to find more yardage and how to avoid making costly mistakes--like throwing interceptions when plays broke down. As Johnson got older, his ability to also know when to tuck his head and dive to save his body became more important than getting hit for the sake of getting a few more yards.

These lessons are ones that Wilson has yet to learn. Even if he was born with unconscionable height, has a baby giraffe's gait, good top-end speed and a cannon of an arm, he still makes bad errors in judgment. The underage drinking foray at a country music concert aside, Wilson threw several pick sixes last year that could have been avoided--had he learned to use better judgment.

If you think about Thompson, he's a prototype of Johnson. He has a decent arm, not a great one, he has to work for everything he gets and he can make plays with his feet. That much was apparent on Saturday.

Thompson did not wow anyone with his arm in this scrimmage, throwing for 129 yards on 8-of-18 passing and two touchdowns. But the touchdowns in and of itself were serious talking points because in Thompson, you see the daring but calculated nature that one day made Johnson great. Thompson, not Wilson, was the one who led the Utes' on their first scoring drive, a 65-yard touchdown strike to tight end Siale Fakailoatonga on a crossing route.

It was the longest touchdown of the day, on one of the first plays during the scrimmage. It wasn't a bomb like Wilson's first TD; it was simply a well-executed play that covered a lot of space in a short period of time. That fact alone had to impress Ute coaches and fans who were thinking that Dennis Erickson was the one who would bring a piece of Oregon Ducks-style football to the Beehive State.

Nope, it would be Christensen, a former Washington Husky. Thompson wasn't done, either. He'd find the end zone again on a 21-yard run and he'd find it yet again on a zippy little 9-yard pass play to young speedster Kaelin Clay. Never fear, Utes fans. Your return to those dink-and-dunk Johnson days of yore may be closer than you imagined.

Where Thompson may have separated himself from Wilson though was during the 2-minute drill, on the final drive of Saturday's scrimmage. In a way, it looked it came right out of the old Johnson playbook.

The offensive linemen didn't hold up their end of the bargain--again--and in came the other team's defense on a busted play. Their mission: seek and destroy. You've seen this movie before, right? You know, the one where Wilson, or Adam Schulz, or Jordan Wynn tried to do too much too soon?

Thompson collided with his tackler, alright, but unlike the three afore-mentioned, it was this OU reject who somehow stayed upright, gathering his wits about him as he inexplicably tightrope-walked along the paint marking the sideline, punch-drunk slightly but still stutter-stepping to maintain his balance and stay inbounds.

Once Thompson regained his equilibrium, he sprinted in true Hollywood fashion down the sideline to paydirt. Charles Thompson' son and possibly Brian Johnson's heir to the throne, whatever this kid from Oklahoma is, this son of an OU great--he's pretty good.

That second touchdown run to daylight and beyond gave Thompson 89 rushing yards on nine carries. Nobody could have written a better script than the one that played out on Saturday afternoon. There is a cautionary tale, however.

The player Whittingham thought he had in Terrance Cain--remember him?--and then didn't have when Cain turned out to be a bust is reason one why you should still be a little wary of this new guy from Oklahoma. Cain's misfortune during the post-Johnson era is why Whittingham turned to Norm Chow and settled for pro-style quarterbacks. All it's gotten Whittingham is three years, one bowl game thanks to an elite-level running back and defense, and two 5-7 seasons in a row.

Whittingham knows better now--after all, he's rolled the dice before on a junior transfer who could run like the wind and throw bullets.

At the end of it all, Whittingham was mum about which QB would start against Idaho State. He kept his poker face on for reporters afterwards, even when you know that deep down, this grizzled ball coach who was once a rising star in his profession, was squealing like a little kid when Thompson made that last play count in the biggest way possible.

"Both of them ran the ball well," Whittingham said post-game. "Both of them threw the ball much more effectively."