Before Kaelin Clay was seemingly bottled up by Idaho State, he was bottled up on the interstate, driving to Mt. San Antonio College from his home 30-plus miles away in Long Beach, Calif.
From I-405 to I-605 to I-10.
Some days he could do it in 45 minutes. It’d take up to two hours during rush hour.
As he did against the Bengals coverage teams, he made his way through the traffic, but you didn’t see that part, the hard part, on ESPN.
What viewers saw last Thursday was Clay returning a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns and SportsCenter’s Top Play — flashing the speed that allowed him to dust De’Anthony Thomas in the state 4x100 final as a prep.
For four years, Clay’s Division I career was stuck in neutral, and now he may have only 11 or 12 more games to show scouts that his electrifying debut was no fluke.
It’s not, said Mt. San Antonio head coach Bob Jastrab.
“What he did last Saturday is what he did for us all season for two years,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune by phone Tuesday. “He’s got NFL track speed, and he just has a knack for finding it and getting loose and getting going. And once he gets loose, he’s gone.”
Clay has had a tougher time getting his Pac-12 career going.
He initially signed with Cal in 2010, redshirting and then undergoing meniscus surgery during fall camp in 2011. He hoped to receive a medical redshirt, but he said the team did not issue an appeal and he left the following year for Mt. San Antonio, where he was the leading receiver and returner in 2012 and 2013.
It’s not an easy route, Jastrab said. Junior college players aren’t on scholarship. They don’t have dorms. There’s no training tables or other such amenities.
“You have to basically earn it, and he did.”
Clay’s 46-yard punt return — when he was walled in by Bengals and weaved left, right, and left again until they were all in his wake — recalled for Jastrab a similar game-winning kickoff return last season against Citrus.
“He was our guy last year,” Jastrab said. “He was the reason we ended up 9-2.”
Although Clay was on the dean’s list at Poly High, he said he wasn’t ready for Division I football when he graduated. “I wasn’t mature,” he said. “And when I came back to the JC, what’s what I wanted to work on: maturing myself.”
After he accepted Utah’s scholarship offer, there was yet more hardship: He expected to arrive in January and participate in spring camp, and then in June for summer strength and conditioning, but “bad communication” about a needed math class delayed him once more.
Thursday, in the figurative sense, he finally arrived.
Clay’s performance drew comparisons to two recent Utes he’s trained with in Long Beach, Reggie Dunn and Shaky Smithson, who have seven returns for touchdowns between them.
Dunn was on the sidelines during the 56-14 blowout when he received a call from Smithson, who wanted to know what was happening.
“I was like, Kaelin is over here doing his thing, man,” Dunn said by phone Tuesday.
“If you watch both of the returns, what really sprung him was his ability to break tackles,” he said.
After the game, Clay said, he went home and fell asleep. His phone died. When he woke up and plugged in, he had text messages and missed calls galore.
“SportsCenter! You were on SportsCenter!”
So he watched, “and that was … it was a pretty good sight to see,” he said.
The team still hopes they’ll be able to win Clay a hardship waiver for his redshirt freshman season at Cal, but they have to wait until his eligibility expires to appeal for one more season.
For now, he’s still catching up mentally with the playbook and physically with the altitude, said head coach Kyle Whittingham, but “he’s made a lot of progress.”
Utah needs that progress to continue, because they’re relying on him. On the most recent depth chart, Clay is listed as starting slot receiver and — no-brainer — as the starting kick and punt returner.
Now, he said, he’s got to keep his foot on the gas.
“You have to take every day like it’s the last day. I feel like I did take maybe a stride or a step into proving something, but it’s only one game.”
Kaelin Clay file
Measurements • 5-foot-10, 193 pounds
Hometown • Long Beach, Calif.
Prior to Utah • Signed with Cal, spent 2010 season redshirting and was named co-scout team player of the year on special teams; injured in 2011; spent 2012-13 with Mount San Antonio College, leading the team both years in receptions, receiving yards, touchdown catches, kick returns and scoring.
Track speed • Took third in state 100 meters and sixth in 200 as a high school senior at Poly High. His best time in the 100 was 10.46, and his best 200 was 21.07.
Fresno State at Utah
O Saturday, 1 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Network