All Jason Shelley is looking for is a chance. When given one, he’s proven he won’t waste it.
Take Utah’s 2018 regular-season finale against rival BYU as proof. Staring down a 20-point deficit midway through the third quarter, Shelley, a redshirt freshman quarterback making just his third start, did the unthinkable. He orchestrated four consecutive touchdown drives, the last of which was a 33-yard keeper in which he stiff-armed a defender as he sped to the end zone for the win.
Need further evidence? When the Utes needed someone to step up at safety between the Pac-12 championship and the Alamo Bowl last season, they turned to Shelley. Within three weeks, he had not only learned a new position but shot up the depth chart. The Utes expected him to be a starter at that position this season.
Shelley, though, has only ever wanted to be a quarterback. When it became clear that wouldn’t be happening at Utah, he entered the transfer portal. Last week, he committed to Utah State. He wants a chance to start, and the Aggies will give it to him.
USU head coach Gary Andersen told The Salt Lake Tribune that the player who will replace Jordan Love behind center this season will either be Shelley or sophomore Andrew Peasley.
“Both quarterbacks will get some opportunities to play with the best players,” said Andersen, who is in his second year of his second stint as head coach at USU. “It’s unfair for a quarterback to be evaluated on [his skills] if he’s not playing with the best players. …
“When the time is right, we’ll make the call. I don’t know when that time is, … but we do want to have a starting quarterback as soon as possible.”
That’s fine by Shelley. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior wasn’t looking for the starting position to be handed to him, according to his father Jason Shelley Sr. He just wanted a chance to compete.
“They definitely made him feel that, you know, Jason was someone that they were interested in giving an opportunity to, and an opportunity is all he’s ever asked for,” Shelley Sr. said in a phone interview from Frisco, Texas. “You’re not guaranteed anything. Being guaranteed something would be wrong for someone to do anyway, because we all know that you have to go out there and do it.
“Now we may anticipate you being a certain way, but, you know, you still have to go do it, and regardless of what you’ve done somewhere else, you’ve got to come do it here. And Jason always understood that. He always understood that, you know, it didn’t matter whatever he done at Utah. All Jason wanted was an opportunity to play quarterback. He loved playing that position and been playing that position since he was 4 years old, you know? So that’s all he’s ever wanted, this opportunity. And he expects nothing more than that.”
Shelley led the Utes to three straight victories — including the win over the Cougars that secured his place in Utah football lore — and their first Pac-12 South title in 2018 while taking over for injured starter Tyler Huntley. The Utes then lost to No. 9 Washington in the Pac-12 title game and Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.
Prior to last season, Utah brought back offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who had also held the position from 2005-08. Under Ludwig, Shelley found himself alternating with Drew Lisk as Huntley’s backup. Then, heading into the Alamo Bowl, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham moved Shelley to safety. With the signing of South Carolina graduate student Jake Bentley in December, it became clear Shelley was not considered a quarterback option for the Utes.
Shelley amassed 1,205 passing yards and six touchdown passes while completing 104 of 179 attempts with Utah. A threat on the ground, he also ran for 223 yards and four touchdowns.
“2019, as a whole, was kind of crazy, to say the least,” Shelley told The Athletic in a January interview. “I feel like things happen for a reason, so I don’t know what’s going to happen heading into the spring and fall, but I’ve just got to keep on working.”
Shelly entered the transfer portal on Feb. 7. He petitioned the NCAA to grant him immediate eligibility, which it did July 10. Three days later, he committed to USU.
Shelley, who had also been courted by USU in high school, received several offers, his father said. Yet by the time his eligibility was cleared, he mostly had his mind made up to become an Aggie, just as his grandfather, Phil Shelley, and his father’s cousin, Ken Thompson, had done. Phil Shelley played safety for USU in 1971 and ’72 and is tied for eighth all-time in career interceptions (10). Thompson, a wide receiver in 1979 and ’80, holds the school record for the most touchdown catches in a game (four) and is tied for second for the most in a season (11).
Shelley also was familiar with Andersen. The coach was the Utes’ defensive coordinator during Shelley’s redshirt and freshman seasons.
“It was just an opportunity, an opportunity to play quarterback, an opportunity to compete for a position, a position he has played since he was 4, you know?” Shelley Sr. said. “So it was a great opportunity with the coaching staff, the history of the family being there. I mean, it was just a lot of things that it almost felt like it should be.
“But like I said, he wasn’t guaranteed anything.”
And nothing will be handed to him, though in many ways a path has been cleared.
On one of the two days the Aggies got to practice this spring before COVVID-19 shut them down, Andersen got to inspect his stable of quarterbacks. Of the four vying for the job, junior Henry Colombi stood out. Last year Colombi was the backup to Love, whom the Green Bay Packers took in the first round of the NFL Draft as the heir apparent to Aaron Rodgers. He had the most experience and, on that day at least, the most potential.
But two days after Shelley committed to USU, Colombi entered the transfer portal. On Monday, he committed to Texas Tech.
Andersen said Colombi’s decision took him by surprise. His intent was not to push Colombi out, he said.
“We always work hard to never stop recruiting and to give our players a chance to win,” Andersen said. “And if we find a quality kid to bring into our program, we’ll bring him in.”
In addition to Peasley, redshirt freshmen Josh Calvin and Cooper Legas are listed at quarterback on the Aggies’ 2020 roster. With basically no spring camp to go off of and a preseason considerably disrupted by the coronavirus, though, Andersen said there wasn’t time to fairly test all four candidates for the starting spot. So, he narrowed it down to Shelley and Peasley.
Peasley, a 6-2, 200-pound sophomore out of La Grande, Ore., red-shirted in 2018 and then tore the MCL and PCL in his right knee last September. He is virtually untested on the field, having completed 5 of 10 passes for 24 yards.
Still, Andersen fully expects Peasley will give Shelley some competition for the starting spot.
“He has worked his tail off to get to this point. He’s worked his tail off to be ready to go,” Andersen said. He added, however, “There is no tenure in college football. There is no just because you’ve been here it’s your time to play. We’ll work to create the most competition at every spot.”
Peasley was considered the most athletic among the quarterbacks in the spring camp and Shelley is also recognized for his athleticism (he’s cousins with Heisman Trophy winner Rashaan Salaam). So, both should fit well into the expanded playbook being devised by new offensive coordinator Bodie Reeder, who joined USU in January. Andersen said the scheme will resemble that of the 2012 Aggies, which won the Western Athletic Conference in Andersen’s final season of his first stint with the team.
In at least one realm, Peasley holds a considerable advantage: He already knows most of the staff and his teammates. During COVID-19, when considerable barriers to intermingling exist, that may be a tough area for Shelley to gain ground.
Andersen said he wasn’t concerned about that, however, and neither is Shelley’s father. He said all the players have to do is give his son a chance.
“The locker room dynamic is pretty simple with football. I think it is with most sports,” he said. “You’ve got a common goal and the goal is to get in there and win ball games, right? And if there is somebody on the team that doesn’t cause any stirring, any problems or anything is easy to get along with and helps you win ball games? I think you’ll be just fine with that guy.”
NCAA teams can begin full practices Aug. 7. The Aggies are scheduled to host Southern Utah on Sept. 12 in their season opener.