Play-calling Dennis Erickson having fun with Utes
For the first time since his years as Jack Elway's offensive coordinator at San Jose State (1979-81), Dennis Erickson doesn't have to worry about personnel problems with a program or an organization.
Erickson, 66, is in his first season as co-offensive coordinator at Utah (2-0), which plays host to Oregon State (1-1) at 7 p.m. PT Saturday in the Pac-12 opener for both schools.
"I'm having fun," says Erickson, a year removed from his last head-coaching job at Arizona State. "It's different from what I'm used to, but in a good way."
In other words, not having to oversee an entire major-college program or NFL team.
"I don't have to worry about all the different issues outside of football you have to deal with," Erickson says. "When you're a head coach these days, whether in college or the pros, you're a CEO. It's strictly back to coaching the offense and with the (position players) you coach. It's back to my roots."
For the first time since his years at Fresno State under Jim Sweeney and at San Jose State under Elway, Erickson watches games from the press box, where he calls plays for the Utes. Utah's other co-offensive coordinator, Brian Johnson, is in on the sidelines and in constant communication with Erickson.
"I love it," Erickson says. "I get a chance to see things better. You have pretty much solitude, so you can focus on what you need to do. I can think clearly and see things better. Between Brian and I, we're able to make the play selection. It's been good for me."
Johnson coaches the quarterbacks, Erickson the running backs.
'It's what I wanted to do," he says. "I don't have as many (players) to coach, and it gives you a better idea of the whole perspective offensively."
Erickson is using the no-huddle, shotgun system he employed during most of his time at Arizona State.
"We're using some variations, the result of the year off I spent looking at what I'd do if I ever got back into it," he says. "We're not as fast as Oregon and maybe some of the other schools, but we can be if we want to be. We play fast, but we're not NASCAR fast. We want to get in and out as fast as we can, but not without knowing what the heck we're doing."
Erickson has a prize in quarterback Travis Wilson, the 6-6, 240-pound sophomore who has matured into a dual threat.
"He's grown a lot since last year and even since last spring," Erickson says. "He's big, very athletic and runs and throws pretty well for us. I like what I see."
Utah came from behind to beat Utah State 30-26 in its opener, then pounded Weber State 70-7 a week ago.
"Utah State is a good team, don't get me wrong, but we haven't really played anybody," Erickson says. "We like where we're at, but (Saturday's game against Oregon State) will be a very good test for us."
Erickson, who coached at Oregon State from 1999-2002 before leaving for the San Francisco 49ers, largely discounts the Beavers' 49-46 season-opening loss to FCS opponent Eastern Washington.
"They're not different than they've been," Erickson says. "You run into those stumbling blocks. The year (Oregon State) won the Fiesta Bowl (the 2000 season), we had to come from behind to beat Eastern. Look at what North Dakota State did to Kansas State this season.
"I don't view (the Beavers) any different than I viewed them before that game. They have a lot of weapons. Mike (Riley) does such a great job coaching. They've been in that situation before and have come out of it. They've had injuries before, too, and found a way to replace them."
Erickson has spent much time this week watching video of Oregon State's defense. He understands the impact of the loss of senior linebacker Michael Doctor, out for six to eight weeks with a broken foot.
"He's a great player, no question," says Erickson, who has closely followed the Beavers since he left and retains a special affinity for the program. "He has been since he played as a true freshman. But they seem to have guys who step up at different positions. They always have. And they have (D.J.) Alexander back, who will help replace the loss" of Doctor.
Erickson underwent a hip replacement in February. Seven months later, "I feel better physically and mentally than I have in five years."
Does he aspire to be a head coach again?
"I don't even know," he says. "I'm having fun doing this. It's less stressful. Who knows what will happen. I'm just glad to be able to get back in it at this point in my career."
The unspoken answer, if I'm reading my old friend correctly, is that while Erickson is enjoying his current job, if a good head-coaching position beckons, he'll be ready. It's what coaches who have been there do. And Dennis Erickson -- who won back-to-back national championships at Miami and served as the head man with the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks -- has been there, no mistake about it.