SALT LAKE CITY — His first major college start, against Arizona State last year, was not a memorable one for Jon Hays, at least not in a positive way.
Hays, as everyone knows by now, was just a few months removed from not having anywhere to play college ball and had only been part of the Ute team for a matter of weeks when starter Jordan Wynn went down with a season-ending injury. Hays was basically all the Utes had at the quarterback spot.
He started off decently enough, staking the Utes to a 14-10 lead. However five Utah turnovers, including three interceptions from Hays, handed the game to the Sun Devils, who scored 25 unanswered points.
"I was really disappointed with my performance last year against Arizona State — I had three picks," Hays said earlier this week.
Eleven and a half months later, Hays gets another shot at Arizona State, this time in Tempe (Saturday, 8 p.m. MDT), and he says he'll be much more prepared this time around and ready for redemption. "I'm ready to get back down there and play a good Arizona State team."
For Hays, the guy who was headed to Division II Nebraska-Omaha before that school suddenly dropped football, it has been a roller-coaster ride over the past 16 months.
He was picked up by the Utes as an emergency backup in mid-May, found himself thrust into the starting role in the middle of the team's initial Pac-12 season, lost some games and won some games before capping the year with a brilliant come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Yet despite all that, he was basically relegated to fourth string during spring ball as the Utes welcomed Wynn back from an injury and tried to get a close look at highly touted incoming freshmen Travis Wilson and Chase Hansen.
While it was a tough time for Hays, he just kept working hard, trying to keep his head up.
"It's not what happens but how you respond to it," he said. "That's the philosophy I've taken, and it's really helped me out."
Hays said the Ute coaches were always up front about everything and that helped him deal with the situation.
"They've been true to their word," he said. "Any time I've had a question and wanted to know how I stood on this team, they've been brutally honest with me, and I really appreciate that."
While most folks figured that the Utes would use a freshman rather than a senior as backup, Hays hung in there and by the end of fall camp, coach Kyle Whittingham called him one of the most improved players on the team.
He was thrust into action against Utah State and nearly led a come-from-behind win. Then, after the way Hays led the Utes to victory over BYU with no turnovers and a quarterback rating of over 150, Whittingham couldn't have been happier.
"A great deal of credit goes to Jon Hays," he said. "He's a mobile quarterback, he's as tough as nails and he took some shots Saturday. He just picks himself back up every time. He's got mental and physical toughness, and it's infectious with the rest of the team. His performance with the throw game was one of the big reasons we were able to win the game."
Looking back, Hays sees a big difference in his game compared to last year when he was thrown into the fire against the Sun Devils.
"Last year I had no spring ball at all and basically started when fall camp started. I handled the offense as best I could, kind of thrown into the fire. This year I got to work with BJ (offensive coordinator Brian Johnson) all spring and fall camp. He's done a really good job of handling me."
Hays also credits Wynn, who is working with the quarterbacks after calling it a career last week, for his guidance.
"I'd go to the sideline after every drive and he had a headset on and would talk to me," he said. "He's definitely a tool for me. The mental aspect of the game — I've never seen anyone who could handle it better. After every drive I'd talk to Jordan and talk to BJ on the phone about stuff."
Playing in the Pac-12 in front of sold-out stadiums after being ticketed to a Division II school is still "surreal" to Hays, who says he takes it a day at a time.
"The ups and downs of last year, all last season and offseason and coming into this season — it's been a roller-coaster ride. That's just the way it's been. It's kind of crazy how things worked out."