Turns out Dennis Erickson found life without football pretty boring.
The veteran college coach took a season off after he was let go by Arizona State in 2011, thinking maybe at that point he’d retire. But after sitting out and watching fall Saturdays pass him by, he decided he’d had enough.
Erickson was hired in January as a co-offensive coordinator at Utah under head coach Kyle Whittingham.
“It was a chance to get back into the Pac-12, and it was close to where I live in Idaho,” Erickson said. “More than anything, it was an opportunity to get back into coaching. I was out for that year and I missed it a lot. So I just wanted to get back in. And it’s been a lot of fun for me.”
Erickson is charged with helping to install an uptempo offense, giving the Utes a new look heading into their third year in the Pac-12. He’s working with fellow offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, the former Utah quarterback who played from 2004-08 and went a school-record 26-7 as a starter.
“I really believe in playing fast,” Erickson said. “We’ve been able to get better at it, but we’ve got a lot of things to learn. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Erickson, 66, led Miami to national championships in 1989 and 1991. Utah is his fourth Pac-12 school; he’s also been head coach at Washington State (1987-88), Oregon State (1999-02) and Arizona State (2007-11). He’s made additional stops at Idaho and Wyoming.
He also was head coach of the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98) and San Francisco 49ers (2003-04).
The Utes can use his help. Last season, they averaged 25.9 points, far below Oregon’s average of 49.6. They ranked 105th in the nation in total offense, averaging 324.42 yards.
Utah finished 5-7 and missed out on going to a bowl game for the first time since 2002.
Erickson and Johnson are depending on sophomore quarterback Travis Wilson, who had to start the final seven games of last season for the Utes because of injuries.
Wilson threw for a respectable 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns, but he also threw six interceptions and struggled at times in close games to get the offense into scoring position.
Wilson said he’s embraced a leadership role as well as the new no-huddle offense.
“It’s going to be a lot faster,” Wilson said. “We’re going to really try to achieve a lot more plays throughout the whole game. That’s the big emphasis.”
Erickson said Wilson is progressing nicely.
“We weren’t very good on offense last year and we were very inexperienced on the offensive line,” Erickson said. “So he got introduced to it in maybe not the best situation. But he learned from it. And I really like where he’s coming from and how he’s improved. He’s going to be the guy that makes this offense go.”
The Utes open the season next Thursday night at home against rival Utah State. Utah is expected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South, where the team finished last season.
The Utes were in the Mountain West Conference before joining the Pac-12 for the 2011 season. The team is still transitioning to the faster, bigger league, but the players think they’ll surprise some of the naysayers with the new offense.
“We’ll be able to surprise a lot of people given where we were as an offense last year and not being very productive. Hopefully, we can come out and have that underdog mentality as an offense and just surprise people. Catch them on their toes,” junior tight end Jake Murphy said. “Not many people are expecting much out of our offense right now. We like it like that. It should be interesting.”
Erickson and Johnson will share play-calling duties, with Johnson on the field and Erickson upstairs in the box.
After more than 40 years in coaching, Erickson said it’s been decades since he’s watched from above.
“It will be a little different, but it should be fun,” he said. “I can have a hot dog if I want one. And I don’t have to stand out in the weather if it’s pouring. So I like that.”