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Utah football notes: Clay is Pac-12 special teams player of the week

Published: Monday, Sept. 1 2014 5:50 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 2 2014 7:05 a.m. MDT

Utah Utes Kaelin Clay returns the ball for a touchdown on a kick off return during PAC 12 action in Salt Lake City Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014. Utah won 56-14.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Kaelin Clay is making up for lost ground in a hurry. The senior, who didn’t join the Utah Utes until just before preseason camp started while wrapping up academic issues, is quickly getting up to speed.

In his first game with the Utes, Clay wound up returning both a punt (46 yards) and a kickoff (100 yards) back for touchdowns. His contributions not only helped the team roll past Idaho State 56-14 at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it also landed Clay some impressive individual accolades. He topped the ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 highlights before adding special teams player of the week recognition from CBSSports.com and the Pac-12.

“He’s a big play guy,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “That was very apparent by when he touched the ball Thursday night.”

Clay, who moved past Delshawn McClellon to become a starting wide receiver on this week’s depth chart, said he’s got the playbook down. Conditioning and adjustment to the altitude, however, are still works in progress.

“He’s made a lot of progress. He’s just about caught up and it was both from a physical and mental standpoint,” Whittingham said. “He didn’t get here until right before two-a-days started, so he was starting from square one.”

Whittingham noted that the other newcomers to the program had the benefit of meeting twice a week all summer long and Clay missed out on that.

“But he certainly made up a lot of ground in the game with the big plays on the returns. Still, his stamina is not where it needs to be,” Whittingham said. “He’s still getting that part down with the attitude and the fast tempo that we’re playing at. He was nowhere near ready for that at the very beginning. He’s getting closer now.”

Clay, though, is taking it all in stride.

“It just shows you that hard work pays off. I believe that,” he said. “I’m living proof that hard work pays off.”

And he’s far from finished. Clay wants to get in the kind of shape that fellow receivers Dres Anderson and Kenneth Scott are in. He notes that the air is really thin in Utah, but it’s nice and fresh.

So, too, is his approach to each game. Clay has no intentions of resting on his laurels.

“My philosophy is live with it for 24 hours and you get rid of it,” he said of his performance in the opener. “You can’t dwell on the past.”

Clay wants to constantly keep working.

Even so, the 22-year-old from Long Beach, California, admits things got a little bit crazy after the Idaho State game. Once the highlights hit the airwaves, his cellphone heated up and actually stopped working for about an hour and a half. Clay estimates that he received about 200 phone calls, texts or Twitter messages during that time. He didn’t know it until the next morning, and didn’t see himself on ESPN until Friday afternoon.

During the game, though, former Utah standout Reggie Dunn was on the sideline. The record-setting return specialist offered Clay his support.

“He just told me to keep it up, keep up the good work, he’ll be watching,” said Clay, who was also encouraged to stay focused if he really wants to break Dunn’s kickoff return records — as well as those of mentor Shaky Smithson when it comes to punts.

“It was great because after I took the punt return back he actually told me, he said ‘OK, you might be able to get Shaky’s record, but I want to see you take a kickoff return.’ And I so I took the kickoff return back and he said ‘OK, I believe it.’ ”

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