When Utah quarterback Travis Wilson came back to the sidelines last Friday night -- his left arm in a sling and wrapped with ice -- it was a scene all-too familiar for Utah fans.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham isn't saying if Wilson, who reportedly has a sprain in his non-throwing shoulder, will start this week at Fresno State. And that's a good thing. That Wilson might even be an option is an encouraging sign for a program that has been snake bitten on the QB injury front the last few seasons.
Not since 2008 has Utah had a quarterback start every game during the season. That was Brian Johnson, for those who are wracking your brains and sifting through a seemingly never-ending list of slingers. Since the start of the 2009 season, nine different quarterbacks have taken snaps for the Utes and six different quarterbacks have started.
"It's been a little bit frustrating," said Whittingham. "I don't think we've been able to keep one healthy since Brian Johnson in '08, which was the last time we got through the season with a quarterback intact. I don't think it's that uncommon ... I don't think it's unique to us, but we've certainly had an extended run of not being able to keep that guy healthy."
Extended being the key word. The Utes have seen a starting quarterback go down with a season-ending injury every year for the last five seasons -- including Jordan Wynn in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Wilson in 2013 and Kendal Thompson last year after he had wrestled the starting job away from Wilson.
Wilson, of course, is already playing on borrowed time. Recall in 2013, doctors found a preexisting injury to an intracranial artery that was discovered during a concussion examination. He missed the final three games of 2013 and there was some question as to whether he'd ever play again. But he worked his way back and received medical clearance. He certainly plays like he's got nothing to lose.
"He's a competitor. An ultra-competitor," Whittingham said. "We've had many discussions about being smart and surviving to play another play. But when he gets in the heat of the moment and in the heat of battle, his competitive instincts come out and he's fearless. I think that's the best word to describe it."
In other words, it's just Travis being Travis. Whether it was going helmet-over-spikes last year against Michigan (which ended poorly), or stretching to make a play against USC (which ended magnificently), it's that fearlessness that makes Wilson easy to embrace -- and cringe-inducing to watch.
Wilson's latest injury came during a 38-yard scramble in the Utes 24-14 win over Utah State. He was tackled hard out of bounds and landed awkwardly on his left shoulder. In true Wilson form, he stayed in and ran the ball for 4 yards near the goal line before finally staying down. The play was either to hand off or pull the ball to run. He pulled it and ran.
"He's a fierce competitor and it's hard to temper that sometimes," Whittingham said. "I saw him go down, thought something might be wrong. He tried to play another snap. He looked al ittle bit shaken. The positive it is doesn't seem to be too serious. He'll be back sooner rather than later."
What separates this year's QB injury situation from those in the past is the Utes have some depth and experience behind their starter. Historically that wasn't the case. Should Wilson sit this weekend, Thompson has plenty of legitimate game experience.
"There's a lot of common ground between the two," Whittingham said. "If you had to pinpoint, I'd say Kendal is a little more of a running threat, a little more likely to pull the ball down and run from a drop situation. … We tweak things a little bit offensively. You want to play to the skill set of your quarterback and accentuate what they do well. But it's just a minor, minor change depending on who the quarterback is."