Provo • His father died of throat cancer when he was 8 years old. His favorite cousin died from an accidental shooting five years later. The coaches who recruited him to BYU from across the country left for Virginia two years into his career in Provo.
Think senior defensive back Michael Shelton is going to get down on himself just because he hasn’t seen as much playing time as he expected when he signed with the Cougars out of Raleigh, N.C., way back in 2014?
“With all I’ve been through in my life, not playing a lot has really just been a little setback,” Shelton said Tuesday after emerging as one of the heroes in BYU’s 28-23 victory over Arizona last Saturday. “I just keep in mind that my whole reason for coming to BYU wasn’t just to play football. It was to become a better person, and I believe that is happening.”
CALIFORNIA AT BYU
When • Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
Shelton came out of preseason camp listed as a starter for the first time in his five years at BYU (he redshirted in 2014) and rewarded cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford’s confidence in him with a phenomenal game. He got a fingertip on a field goal that caused it to go awry, returned a punt 37 yards to set up a touchdown drive, recorded two tackles and broke up a pass.
“It kind of felt like a reward for my perseverance, but there’s a lot more to come,” said Shelton, who at 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds is the shortest and lightest player on the team. “I just want to leave everything that I have out on the field every day, especially with it being my senior year.”
Arizona tested Shelton early, then didn’t throw in his direction much after that.
“I will keep expecting more balls to be thrown at me,” he said. “I expect that teams will try to pick on me when they see [my size]. But it is early. We will see how it goes.”
Shelton and the other corners — junior Chris Wilcox, redshirt freshmen Keenan Ellis and D’Angelo Mandell and fellow senior Beau Tanner — will be tested again Saturday when 1-0 California visits LaVell Edwards Stadium for the Cougars’ home opener.
“He did a phenomenal job. I am really excited about the way that he played,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “I thought he played like a leader.”
Shelton looked like he was going to be a mainstay on the defense for years to come after his redshirt freshman season in 2015. He played in 12 games and made 25 tackles, an interception and two pass breakups.
But Mendenhall and the defensive coach who recruited him, Nick Howell, left for Virginia after the season, and Shelton didn’t play nearly as much in 2016 or 2017. He appeared in only seven games and made only five tackles as a sophomore, Kalani Sitake’s first season, but did return a fumble for a touchdown against Utah State.
Last year, he saw a little more time, appearing in 13 games and making 11 tackles and an interception. He did start to emerge as a special teams ace, returning 17 punts for 114 yards and 13 kickoffs for 259 yards.
“He has a heart as big as the ‘Y’ on the mountain,” Gilford said. “His football IQ is through the roof. But his story is that he’s had to wait a little bit. … He had to hop on board and do things the BYU way instead of doing things his own way. … For Michael, things began changing in January. He went into his last semester of school. He has already graduated now. He has turned things around. Now he is stress free and drama free and he can just think about playing football and not really school.”
Shelton’s mother, Josephine, retired last October and moved from North Carolina to Price to be nearer her youngest son and “enjoy the remainder of the process.”
Josephine said her son’s resiliency and perseverance hasn’t surprised her because he’s been a positive, optimistic person since he was a toddler. When her husband, Stanley Shelton, got cancer in 2004, Michael “handled it as if he were a nurse” and helped with his father’s care until his death, she said. His cousin, Nigel Ellison, was killed in March of 2010 and Michael had to learn to deal with that as well.
“He has had some real dramatic stuff happened to him in his life and he has handled it well,” Josephine said.
Michael’s sister, Tonya, said he shined in three sports growing up — football, basketball and track — and competed against the likes of Stanford’s Bryce Love and former Miami receiver Braxton Berrios, now with the New England Patriots.
“Michael has always been an old soul,” Tonya Shelton said. “He was like a little man in a baby’s body. He has always been very tuned in to his environment and how to respond to it.”
Even if it took awhile.
BYU CORNERBACK MICHAEL SHELTON
• Entering his fifth year in the program after signing with BYU in 2014 out of Wakefield High in Raleigh, N.C., and redshirting his first season
• Got the start at cornerback in Saturday’s 28-23 win over Arizona and recorded two tackles and broke up a pass
• Also blocked a field goal and returned a punt 37 yards to set up a touchdown on special teams