Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — You'd think a guy who came from virtual obscurity to lead his team to six victories, including a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback in a bowl game, would be a little better than the fourth-string quarterback three months later.
But that's the situation Jon Hays finds himself in as the Utah football team works its way through its annual spring drills.
Hays, who was a last-minute pickup for the Utes after last year's spring drills didn't produce a viable backup to starter Jordan Wynn, ended up starting the Utes' final nine games after Wynn went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Hays won six of them, including the scintillating comeback at the Sun Bowl when he led the Utes to two touchdowns in the final seven minutes, including a 28-yard, fourth-down TD toss, as the Utes tied the game and won in overtime.
And his reward for all that is fourth-string behind two freshmen?
It's all good according to Hays and his coaches.
They all agree that Wynn needs as many reps as possible this spring since he's coming back from shoulder surgery, while Chase Hansen and Travis Wilson need as many reps as possible since they're highly-recruited freshmen, new to the program.
"We know what Jon can do," says new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. "Jon won a lot of games for us and I'm comfortable with him going into a game. For us, the goal is to find a way to develop those freshmen and get them up to speed. Spring ball is about developing depth."
Hays is understanding, saying, "You know, that's the way it goes — I was never a highly recruited guy and these guys are. They can definitely sling the ball around."
He is also diplomatic in talking about his situation.
"Obviously Jordan hardly got any reps last year and the freshmen haven't gotten any reps," he said. "I'm just sitting back helping those guys try to learn the offense and make us a better football team. It's the best thing for the program to take a look at everyone."
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham praises Hays' attitude, saying, "Jon's a team guy and understands the situation. He's making the most of the reps he gets."
He also echoes Johnson in talking about the reason for the Hays being so low on the depth chart.
"We know what Jon Hays' capabilities are — he's a proven commodity. We know exactly what he brings to the table. We need to get a look at the guys we don't know a lot about — the freshmen — and that's the objective this spring."
Johnson said it will all be sorted out in the fall and didn't rule out the possibility of Hays challenging for the starting or backup spots.
"I can't say enough about what he did for us last season. He's a tough, competitive kid who has won in the Pac-12. I'm confident in his abilities that if he plays in a game, he can get it done."
It's unlikely, however, the Utes are going to put a senior like Hays ahead of a two-year starter and two promising freshmen on the depth chart. It's likely one of the two will redshirt, leaving Hays No. 3 entering next season. But he'll be ready if needed.
With Wynn, Hansen, Wilson, Hays and redshirt Adam Schulz, the Utes will have a lot of choices next fall, unlike last season when Hays was about the only option when Wynn went down.
"It's definitely a nice problem to have," says Johnson. "We need to keep that cupboard full."
UTE NOTES:Reggie Topps, who has been challenging for a starting cornerback spot, has been suspended from the team for "violation of team rules," Whittingham said Tuesday. ...Wide receiver Anthony Denham broke his thumb and will be out the rest of spring ball. ... Running back John White IV tweaked his hamstring and was held out of practice for "precautionary reasons." ... Offensive lineman Daniel Nielson and defensive back Lewis Walker both returned to practice Tuesday after sitting out with injuries.
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