As a toddler, Jason Shelley II would grab a football and stage his own games, even tackling himself.
That part won't be necessary Saturday, when Shelley will make his first start as a college quarterback and the visiting Oregon Ducks will supply the defense.
Shelley’s father and high school coach say Utah’s redshirt freshman QB has been “preparing his whole life” for this moment, and that’s barely an exaggeration. He was throwing touchdown passes in flag football as a 5-year-old, racing future Ute receiver Jaylen Dixon on the playground in fourth grade, quarterbacking Lone Star High School to the state championship game as a junior and using Twitter mainly to count down daily from 100 days to the Utes' 2018 season opener.
And then came the accelerated timetable of Shelley’s promotion to Utah’s No. 1 quarterback, when two-year starter Tyler Huntley was injured in last Saturday’s 38-20 loss at Arizona State and declared out for at least the regular season. Wins against Oregon and Colorado may give the Utes their first Pac-12 South title; two losses would ruin a promising season, regardless of what happens Nov. 24 vs. BYU.
That’s the pressure facing Shelley and his teammates, amid fans' uncertainty of how the rest of this season will play out. In the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Frisco, Texas, the feeling is more of excitement than suspense.
“He's built for this,” said Lone Star coach Jeff Rayburn. “I've been hoping and waiting for this opportunity. … There's nothing that will faze him.”
Shelley's supporters wish the circumstances were different, recognizing how he looks up to Huntley and how the loss of a vital player and co-captain affects the team. Yet “like anybody else, he wants to play,” Jason Shelley Sr. said.
He played all the time at Lone Star, starting at quarterback for four years and also starring as an outfielder in baseball and a guard in basketball. He comes from a football family. His grandfather, Phil Shelley, played defensive back at Utah State in 1971-72. Shelley's father played at various levels of pro football, mostly as a receiver for the Arena League's Dallas Desperados as his son was growing up around football.
Amid his extended family's involvement in the game, Jason II is the only quarterback. “He always wanted the ball in his hands,” his father said.
“He's probably one of the smartest football players I've ever been around,” Rayburn said. “His football IQ and understanding is through the roof.”
Rayburn watched Shelley pass for 10,000 yards and run for nearly 4,000 more in high school, a Texas-sized dual feat topped only by Kyler Murray, who’s now Oklahoma’s quarterback and a Heisman contender. In the 2015 Class 5A Division II semifinals, Shelley accounted for 520 yards and seven touchdowns in a 55-49, three-overtime win over Lake Dallas. The Rangers then lost 22-6 to Cedar Park in the championship game at NRG Stadium in Houston, but his Lone Star legacy was established.
OREGON AT UTAH
When • Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV • Pac-12 Networks
Shelley’s 5-foot-11 stature scared many college coaches, his father said, but Utah’s staff saw beyond his height. “The confidence, the poise, the way he threw the ball — everything you want in a quarterback, those intangibles, he had,” coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Recruited by receivers coach Guy Holliday and then-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, Shelley committed to the Utes in July 2016, prior to his senior season. Jack Tuttle committed in December 2016, after his junior season.
So here’s Shelley’s chance to lead the Utes, an assignment that hardly anyone outside of the program would have forecasted as of mid-August. Shelley’s being named the No. 2 quarterback over Tuttle was the biggest development of preseason camp. More accurately, the story was framed as Tuttle’s demotion to No. 3; that decision ultimately factored into Tuttle’s withdrawing from the school last month (when Shelley expressed support of Tuttle).
“I know Jack was highly recruited coming in, but as we all know, your rankings from high school don’t really matter,” Dixon said. “It’s based on what you do here and the plays that you make, and [Shelley] made those plays throughout fall camp. He got that backup spot and deserved it.”
Dixon is eager to see how his childhood neighbor and classmate responds now, “just knowing what he can do, and that he's going to have that stage to go out and prove it to everybody,” he said. “There's no one here that thinks he can't get it done.”
The results were mixed last weekend, in Shelley’s first meaningful action. He took off the headset and yellow-mesh vest identifying him as a play-signaler, warmed up quickly and completed his first two passes of 5 yards to Brant Kuithe and 16 yards to Britain Covey. Zack Moss then ran for 27 yards to the ASU 14, but the drive stalled. Shelley was caught for a 5-yard loss on third down after faking a handoff to Moss. Matt Gay’s field goal cut ASU’s lead to 21-20 late in the third quarter, but Utah’s highlights ended there.
The Sun Devils scored 17 points, while each of Utah's next two possessions went three plays and out. Shelley completed two passes on the Utes' last drive, ending with an end-zone interception.
Afterward, Shelley appeared in the interview room and spoke confidently about being prepared to start. Utah is not making him available to the media this week.
His teammates' only choice is to believe in him, but they sound sincere. “The cool thing about Jason is he has such a high ceiling of potential,” Covey said. “When he gets his feet set, there are very few people who throw a prettier ball, especially the deep ball. And everybody's seen his running ability, so I think it's just going to be a matter of him getting comfortable and confident, and and we can provide him with confidence.”
Ute receiver Demari Simpkins, a high school teammate of Huntley, said he really doesn’t have to encourage Shelley. “He’s just as competitive as Tyler is,” Simpkins said. “I will say little stuff here and there: ‘Just play within the game, don’t try and do too much, just relax and be yourself.’ ”
That’s exactly what Shelley’s father is suggesting. The book on Jason II is he never gets too excited or discouraged on the field and he treats football like a game, trying to have fun.
He’s known as a humble person, a serious student and a jokester when he’s in a comfortable setting. Covey, Shelley’s roommate for pregame hotel stays, said, “You will never catch him not smiling.”
The Utes can only hope that holds true, throughout November.
ABOUT JASON SHELLEY
• Height: 5-foot-11. His brother, a seventh-grader, already stands 5-11 and is projected to reach 6-6.
• High school: Lone Star HS, Frisco, Texas. Played football, basketball and baseball.
• Family football background: His father, Jason Shelley Sr., played receiver in various pro football leagues. His grandfather, Phil Shelley, played defensive back at Utah State in 1971-72 and intercepted four passes, including one in a rout of Utah. Former Colorado running back Rashaan Salaam, the 1994 Heisman Trophy winner, was a relative. A cousin, also named Jason Shelley, is a Southern Oregon receiver.
• Ute debut: In the 2018 season opener, Shelley produced a 40-yard completion (to former Lone Star teammate Jaylen Dixon) and a 40-yard run on two of his first seven snaps.
• In Utah’s eight seasons of Pac-12 membership, Shelley is the eighth backup quarterback to be promoted due to the starter’s injury or inefficiency.