Kurt Kragthorpe: Ute QB Jon Hays deserves credit for fill-in work
Jon Hays is spending his spring afternoons standing and watching while the Utah offense practices, which pretty much matches the job description that brought him to the campus last summer.
Yet even as a guy who never really was supposed to play for the Utes, Hays somehow appears out of place these days. Jordan Wynn is back from the shoulder injury that forced Hays into action, and freshman quarterbacks Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen have arrived as early enrollees in college, knocking Hays completely off the published depth chart.
Anybody remember the Sun Bowl?
Barely three months after Hays rallied the Utes past Georgia Tech with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes and an overtime scoring drive, he's an afterthought. Having described Hays as a "fill-in" QB in no fewer than six columns last season, I would be disingenuous to question how the Ute staff is upgrading the position.
It would be equally unfair not to give Hays the credit he deserves for delivering four Pac-12 wins and a bowl victory. His story remains remarkable, how the Utes landed him after spring practice during a desperate search for an adequate backup to Wynn, and how only Nebraska-Omaha's dropping its Division II football program made him available.
And when Wynn was sidelined by halftime of the fourth game, Hays instantly became Utah's QB during the school's first Pac-12 season. Via some combination of Hays' improvement, running back John White's workload, the defense's performance and the staff's ability to reduce the quarterback position's importance, the Utes made it work. They went 6-3 with Hays which is better than the 5-5 record Brian Johnson produced in 2005, his first season as a starter.
"That's a good one," said Johnson, who is the school's all-time leader, with 26 quarterbacking victories, and is now serving as Utah's offensive coordinator.
Johnson, then the team's quarterbacks coach, will always appreciate how Hays helped salvage the Utes' 2011 season. That's likely where it will end, though, as Hays occupies a unique position in Ute history. He was recruited for emergency purposes, responded when needed and now is a fourth-string senior whose status is unlikely to change unless one of the freshmen is redshirted.
"It's tough to sit on the sidelines, but that's what's making the program better," Hays said. "Their development is definitely important."
Hays remains eager to compete, and more opportunity may come in August, once the staff evaluates the newcomers. Hays understands the situation, said coach Kyle Whittingham. "We told him going in that we need to find out what these freshmen are all about."
The coaches know what they have in Hays, which is both a compliment and a slight. Everybody knows he was a temporary solution, but he succeeded.
"Definitely a cool experience," Hays said. "I kind of got thrown into the fire there, but I came out alive. â¦ It's something I'll always remember."
The Sun Bowl is especially unforgettable. After Hays threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, the Utes trailed Georgia Tech 24-10. They came back to claim a 30-27 overtime victory as Hays responded with two touchdown passes, both on fourth-down plays.
"That's when you've got to come through," Hays said. "There's no such thing as fifth down, so that's your last chance."
The rally in El Paso, Texas, probably was Hays' last appearance in a meaningful situation for the Utes. That also means his legacy is secure.
This season, he'll be standing on the sideline, with far more talented quarterbacks playing ahead of him. Hays will be remembered as the Ute QB who didn't truly belong in that position but, admirably, acted as though he did.
Tracking Ute quarterbacks
Records for Utah starting QBs since 2000 (minimum 8 starts):
QB, years W-L Pct.
Alex Smith, 2003-04 21-1 .913
Terrance Cain, 2009-10 9-2 .818
Brian Johnson, 2005-08 26-7 .787
Jordan Wynn, 2009-11 13-6 .684
Jon Hays, 2011 6-3 .667
Brett Ratliff, 2005-06 10-5 .667
Lance Rice, 2000-02 12-8 .600
Brett Elliott, 2002-03 4-4 .500