Utah football: Hays feels right at home as Utes' QB
The offensive coaches are working extra hours to devise a new game plan, the defense has discussed the need to carry the offense more than ever and the head coach has reassured everyone involved that the sky isn't falling.
Everyone, it seems, has a concern about quarterback Jon Hays' first start as a Ute except the man himself.
"I've been playing football since I was young and it's just a football game," he said. "With 50,000 people watching."
Hays' laid-back assessment of the biggest football game of his life prompted giggles from his listeners, but his a calm demeanor is one of the reasons the Utes identified Hays as their man when they went in search of a capable backup for Jordan Wynn.
The Utes knew they didn't necessarily need a guy with a huge arm or the quickest of feet. What they wanted was someone who could step in at a second's notice and command Utah's offense through any situation.
They found what they were looking for in Hays, who will lead the Utes against No. 22 Arizona State Saturday because Wynn is sidelined with a shoulder injury.
Some could see the change as doom-and-gloom time, considering the Utes' offense struggled mightily against Washington's low-rated defense. And Hays' Division I experience consists of one half in which the Utes were outscored 21-7.
But a guy who beat the odds by landing at a school in a BCS conference feels he can beat the odds again.
"I did some things all right," he said of his half against the Huskies when he was 10-of-16 for 156 yards. "Diving for first down, and I threw a nice deep ball to [DeVonte Christopher]. It got my confidence up and I'll be ready to play this week."
Being one of the few who believes in his talents is nothing new to Hays.
As a quarterback for Paradise High in California, Hays led his team to two sectional titles and was the MVP for the South team in the 2008 Nor-Cal all-star game.
Despite his strong play, no major offers came for Hays, a sturdy 6-feet and 212-pounds.
So Hays went the route so many overlooked, northern California quarterbacks have taken and accepted an offer from Butte (Calif.) College.
Butte athletic director Craig Rigsbee, who coached former Ute Brett Ratliff and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is already sold on Hays' talents. He was sitting in the stands the night Hays beat his sons' high school team by converting a fourth-and-11 play and then running a 60-yard bootleg to win the game.
"You could see he was just a really, really competitive guy," Rigsbee said. "I knew he was going to be a good competitor for us, and that is what I told Norm [Chow] when he called and asked me about him. I told him he was a smart guy who wouldn't be intimidated."
Still, despite Hays' competitiveness and his abilities that showed in his sophomore year when he led Butte College to a 9-2 record, Chow never would have placed that call if it weren't for several odd circumstances.
First, the Utes decided they needed a quarterback because they were worried about Wynn's recovery from his December shoulder surgery and the readiness of backups Tyler Shreve and Griff Robles.
Then Nebraska-Omaha, the school which signed Hays, dropped its football program leaving Hays staring at a computer screen wondering what he was going to do.
"I was hanging out with some buddies when the email came through saying football was being dropped," Hays said. "We thought it was a joke. Then a few [recruits] got excited because we thought it meant we were going Division I. Then we looked further into the e-mail and realized we weren't going."
Hays was going somewhere. He fit the Utes' need for a backup quarterback.
"He does have the personality needed and he is confident," Chow said. "That is why we brought him here."
Hays, who lettered in baseball and lists golfing, fishing and snowboarding among his hobbies, thinks of himself as a blue-collar athlete. He doesn't thrive on flashy passes and doesn't have a highlight reel of runs to his name, but he does do what it takes to win.
Hays first put himself in position to succeed in the summer when he arrived on campus and worked extra hours to catch up to his teammates, who were already in the midst of volunteer workouts. He also crammed extra hours to learn Utah's playbook. By the time the Utes opened camp, Hays not only had shown enough to be listed as Utah's backup quarterback over Shreve and Robles, but he'd also won over his teammates.
"He is a fighter and an underdog," tight end Dallin Rogers said. "But he has a very calming presence, too, which is good. Our players respect him."
The way he carries himself reminds Utah coach Kyle Whittingham of Ratliff, who faced a similar situation. Ratliff replaced an injured Brian Johnson now Utah's quarterback coach in 2005 and led the Utes to wins over BYU in the regular-season finale and Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl.
"He and Brett have a lot in common," Whittingham said. "He is a good leader and he has a calm demeanor about him. Now he is in almost the same exact scenario [as Ratliff]. It's his turn to step up."
Hays believes he'll succeed, not only on the strength of his talent but because of the extra hours he has spent with Wynn, Johnson and Chow.
"Those are three great mentors," he said.
Hays' work habits helped him against Washington and they'll help him against the Sun Devils, Johnson said. He "studies like he's going to play every week and that's what it takes, because it's not easy being a No. 2 quarterback. You don't get all the reps in practice."
Hays is getting plenty of reps now as he gets ready for his debut as a Utah starter.
Those in the stands and those from afar will watch to see if the laid-back, California underdog can craft an upset for the Utes Saturday. There are plenty who believe he can.
"He just needs to go out and play his game and he'll be fine," Ratliff said. "The funny thing is, when I first started at BYU, everybody came in and said it was such a big game and my response that entire week was I was going to go out and play like it was like any game I'd played. Once he gets in and settles in, he'll realize it's still football."
And he's still the underdog, trying to prove he can succeed.
From Butte College to the Big Time
Jon Hays isn't the first QB out of Butte (Calif.) College to make an impact on a larger stage. Here are some of the others:
Brett Ratliff • Filled in for Brian Johnson (knee injury) in 2005 and led the Utes to a win over BYU, then beat Georgia Tech in the Emerald Bowl. Signed as a free agent by the New York Jets in the 2007, Ratliff had short stints with Cleveland, Jacksonville and New England. Waived by Tennessee in August, Ratliff lives in Nashville.
Aaron Rodgers • The Green Bay Packers quarterback attended Butte College before signing with Cal and leading the Bears to a 10-1 season in 2004. He earned Super Bowl MVP honors in 2010 after leading the Packers to a win over Pittsburgh.
Jordan Rodgers • Aaron Rodgers' younger brother quarterbacked Butte when Hays was a freshman. He is now a quarterback at Vanderbilt.
Other Butte alums who attended Utah
Marty Johnson • Running back was the NCAA's leading rusher in 2002, averaging 202.5 yards before a season-ending knee injury. His promising career was derailed by alcohol issues.
Chad Folk • A standout lineman in 1995-96 for the Utes, Folk was drafted by the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
Paris Jackson • Receiver was second on the team with 43 catches and 553 yards in 2002. He's in his ninth season with the BC Lions of the CFL.