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‘Dad, Mom, I’ve been balling’: Tyler Huntley embrace the pressure of being Utah’s starting QB

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley (1) during practice Tuesday, August 22, 2017.

He was a four-year starter and the Florida Gatorade Player of the Year. He went all over the Southeast with high school teammates and won 7-on-7 competitions, outperforming quarterbacks with multiple Division I offers.

“You’re the next guy on our list,” coaches would always tell Tyler Huntley, the type of slight that “you could tell it did bother him,” said Jase Steward, his offensive coordinator at Hallandale High School.

Now, Tyler Huntley’s name is atop Utah’s quarterback depth chart ahead of Thursday’s season opener against North Dakota.

“I’ve got to keep up the hard work and know that everybody is watching me now,” said the sophomore with the big arm who goes to sleep the night before games clutching a football.

Being in the position he is now is rewarding for Huntley, his former coaches and his parents, who told him that it would take dedication and hard work to achieve his goal. Not many predicted that Tyler Huntley would be Utah’s starting quarterback this fall, with Troy Williams returning as a fifth-year senior who started every game last season.

But even as Ricky and Regina Huntley cautiously prepared their son for disappointment this fall, Tyler brimmed with confidence.

“Dad, Mom,” he told them, “I’ve been balling.”

A QB, first

Tyler Huntley has been a quarterback ever since Ricky put a football in his hands and told him to sling it at age 3.

There was one problem, though: “He didn’t have nobody to catch,” Regina said with a laugh.

Ricky became his son’s primary wideout; even now, whenever Tyler goes home, he drops his bags inside the front door and immediately goes outside with his dad so he can throw 100 passes.

A skinny kid with long hair before his freshman year at Hallandale, a former coach nicknamed Huntley “Snoop” because of his resemblance to rapper Snoop Dogg. Even now, when Utes teammates walked off the practice field as Huntley began media availability this week, chants of “Snoop” rang through the air.

Steward came on board at Hallandale before Huntley’s sophomore year. When he examined film of Huntley as a freshman, Steward noticed his ability to make something out of nothing.

“He had one of the best arms I’ve ever seen, to be honest with you,” Steward said. “The way he threw the football, we knew he was going to be special.”

But Steward and former Hallandale coach Dameon Jones knew Huntley could be misconstrued as a running quarterback in the future, so they implemented a rule: During his sophomore and junior seasons, Huntley had to hang in the pocket or veer out to extend a play. Only as a senior was he allowed to run.

TYLER HUNTLEY <br>Height • 6 foot 1 <br>Weight • 190 pounds <br>Position • Quarterback <br>Class • Sophomore <br>Hometown • Dania, Fla. <br>The focal point • Huntley was named the 2015 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year. ... A four-year starter at Hallandale High, where he went 34-10, passing for 9,053 yards and 106 touchdowns in his career. ... Played in four games as a true freshman in 2016. ... Went 5-of-7 passing for 60 yards and rushed for his first career touchdown in Utah's win over Indiana in last year's Foster Farms Bowl. <br>Changing of the guard • Named Utah's starting quarterback Aug. 21, beating out returning senior and two-time team captain Troy Williams to be the first QB in Troy Taylor's new spread-offense attack.

“We didn’t want him to be labeled as an ‘athlete’ and not a quarterback,” Steward said. “He wanted to play quarterback at the next level, and the conversation was always with him and his parents, ‘OK, so what we’re going to do is, we’re going to make him a pocket passer.’ ”

In four years as a starter at Hallandale, Huntley went 34-10, passing for 9,053 yards and 106 touchdowns. Ignored by recruiters of Power Five schools — possibly because at 5 foot 10, he did not possess “ideal” height for a quarterback — Huntley committed to Florida Atlantic in March 2015.

Then fate — and a visit from a South Florida coaching legend — intervened.

Sticking to the plan

Dennis Erickson showed up near his old stomping grounds in search of a quarterback he’d heard so much about. The now-former Utah assistant coach, who won two national championships as University of Miami coach, saw a guy who “always gives himself a second chance — all the time” when a play breaks down.

“When I went and watched him practice,” Erickson recalled, “he just made things happen.”

Thanks to Erickson’s background, Utah’s expanded footprint into Florida paid off a few months later. Huntley visited Utah in August 2015 and committed a few days after his visit, telling his parents, “This is the place.”

And when other Power Five schools belatedly began paying attention to Huntley, he stayed firm on the Utes, turning down other suitors.

“We didn’t want to be seeking something else,” Ricky Huntley said.

Not only did Huntley stay loyal to Utah, he helped convince two Hallandale teammates — running back Zack Moss and wide receiver Demari Simpkins — to trek westward, too. When Huntley takes the first offensive snap for Utah on Thursday, he’ll do so with Moss starting in the backfield with him. Simpkins is in the running to be one of the starting wide receivers.

“We got kind of lucky with that,” Erickson said. “A lot of people came in, but they didn’t change their mind. They stayed to their word, which is awesome.”

‘He’s going to be fun’

Ricky and Regina Huntley know that if their youngest son is restless at night, he goes to watch game film. So it felt familiar to them this month when a ding from their cellphone and a text message from their son woke them up.

“Where are you?” Ricky asked his son.

“I’m at the facility,” Tyler replied, “studying film.”

The Huntleys know their son is under a microscope now — a talented, young quarterback who will be lauded for the highlight-reel plays he’ll make and criticized for future mistakes. Ricky has told his son one of the most taxing transitions will be the off-the-field attention. Regina has suggested he stay off social media as much as possible, too.

“Some going to love you, some going to not love you,” she said. “You just have to take it as it comes.”

“I’m used to that,” Tyler told his mom.

And when Regina reminded Tyler that the starting quarterback gig comes with cameras and microphones at every turn, he said, “I know how to smile. I can just smile.”

Whether from Facebook and Twitter or the media, Huntley has heard the skepticism: Will he hold up over an entire season and be able to take the hits at a critical part of a must-win game? And perhaps most prevailing, can he make the throws he needs to on a consistent basis to change the complexion of Utah’s offense for good?

“I think most people sleep on his arm,” Simpkins said. “He has the arm to do it. He can put it anywhere. Look out for that.”

“The last thing that Tyler can do is try and be conservative,” Erickson added. “Just be himself.”

For Tyler Huntley’s parents, being himself is being the kid who can slow down a game and make it look effortless, thanks to the hours of late-night film study.

“Don’t let him get comfortable,” Regina Huntley warns opposing Pac-12 defenses. “He’s going to be fun.”

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