SALT LAKE CITY — It doesn't take long to change the expectations of a football season. Just ask the Utes.
Heading into their matchup with Washington last Saturday, Utah appeared to be in prime position to make a statement to its fans and new conference. The Utes were coming off an impressive road win over their rival and a bye week, allowing them two weeks to heal and ready themselves for the Huskies.
After 60 minutes of football the Utes found themselves 0-2 in Pac-12 play and without their starting quarterback. All of the anticipation and excitement of the Pac-12 had dissipated as Wynn stood on the sidelines with yet another shoulder injury, this time to his non-throwing shoulder.
Cue the backup quarterback from Paradise, Calif.
Jon Hays didn't expect to be in this situation six months ago. He was slated to be playing Division II football at Nebraska-Omaha, after completing a 9-2 season at Butte Junior College last fall.
Hays didn't have any real looks from Division I schools. Maybe it was because of his numbers during that 9-2 season, a very average 10-touchdown, 10-interception campaign, though he did run for five scores, too.
When I asked Hays about those numbers he simply told me he was more about winning than numbers. Before his career at Nebraska-Omaha could ever get started the school pulled the plug on the football program — citing financial shortcomings — so Hays found himself out of a job and scholarship. That's where Utah comes in.
When Norm Chow got to Utah in January the first thing he noticed was a lack of depth at the QB position, with Jordan Wynn on the shelf recovering from surgery on his throwing shoulder.
Coming out of spring football, Chow went on the search for another body to add depth to a thin position. He got a call from Jeff Jordan, the head coach at Butte JC, alerting him to Hays' situation. Both Chow and Utah football have a good rapport and history with Jordan and his program. So that's how Hays came to arrive in Salt Lake City.
Fast forward six months and halftime of the Utah-Washington game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. When Chow found out that Jordan Wynn was a no-go for the second half of the game, he approached Hays to tell him now was his time to go try to win Utah a football game.
The response he got was music to Chow's ears.
Hays, without hesitating, told Chow: "That's why you brought me here, coach."
Hays struggled at times, throwing an interception and fumbling away the football, too, in his 30 minutes last Saturday. But he seemed to get better as the half wore along, finishing 10-for-16 for 156 yards and a late touchdown.
When you ask members of the Utah football family what stands out about Hays on the football field, the refrain from coaches and players is the same: strong arm and confidence.
Hays will need both of those traits and more Saturday against a very talented Arizona State team, which is off to a 4-1 start overall and 2-0 in Pac-12 play. The last time Utah had a backup from Butte step up to fill the shoes of a starter it worked out pretty well, as Brett Ratliff led the Utes to a rivalry game win at LaVell Edwards Stadium. This time around the stakes are higher and the opponent better.
Jon Hays has the support of his coaches, teammates and even Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, who played at Butte and hails from the same area of northern California where Hays grew up. Rogers texted Hays well wishes this week.
Now it's up to the Pride of Paradise, Calif., to go out and compete. After all, that's what they brought him here to do.
Bill Riley can be heard as the radio voice of the University of Utah on game days and also on weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on the "Bill and Spence Show" on ESPN Radio 700 AM.
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