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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Utah Utes defensive end Derrick Shelby (90) sacks Montana State Bobcats quarterback DeNarius McGhee (9) during the Utes\' season-opener at Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — Derrick Shelby has been playing a big role for the Utah football team ever since his freshman year when he started for the unbeaten, Sugar Bowl-winning team as a "skinny" 245-pound nose guard.

Now Shelby has morphed into a muscular, 270-pound defensive end, who's playing the best football of his career and just keeps getting better every week, according to his coaches.

"He's playing exceptionally well," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "He came in here a tall, skinny kid with a big frame and a lot of athletic ability and worked his tail off in the weight room to get himself where he is today. The past three games, he's played his best game as a Ute every week and has been as productive as any defensive end in the country."

After leading his team in tackles, getting a couple of sacks and intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown last week against Pitt, Shelby earned Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors as well as the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week.

Shelby has no explanation for his terrific play of late, except perhaps that he's finally been able to shed a clunky knee brace he was forced to wear last year after a serious knee injury his sophomore season.

"It was horrible," Shelby says of the knee brace. "Losing that much strength in your leg is tough to come back from, but once you regain it, you feel good. With the lack of the knee brace and better health overall, I got a bunch of strength back in my knee and my quad, so it feels a lot better. It's been a steady increase since then."

Also since last season Shelby was asked to put on an extra 10 pounds, which he feels has helped his pass rushing skills, allowing him to run over offensive linemen rather than around them.

"If you look at most of my rushes, they're mostly power rushes," he said. "When you get bigger you feel like you can push guys over, you won't see me running around guys. Adding bulk and muscle always helps to do that."

Defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a praises the mental side of Shelby's game as well as the physical.

"He's got a lot of playing time under his belt and is putting all that knowledge together right now and that's why he continues to get better every week," said Kauha'aha'a. "He's a student of the game, a smart guy and he controls the defensive front. He knows what everybody is doing and what his opponent is doing — that's why he's so successful."

Defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake said Shelby looked at him funny when he asked him to put on an extra 10 pounds in the offseason, but that he followed through.

"He's done everything we've asked him to do as far as gaining weight and getting stronger — he's just been really good to coach," said Sitake. "He's a veteran and overcome a lot of adversity. Before he was little more reserved and shy and this year I've seen his leadership take off. You see his personality come out more now that he's a senior. He's a perfect example of how our guys should act in the system."

Shelby came to Utah in 2007 from Houston, Texas, having been discovered by former Ute assistant Derrick Odum. After a redshirt year, he was thrown into the fire the following season at the nose tackle position. Most nose tackles are in the 300-pound range, but because of injuries and a lack of depth, the Utes had to use Shelby, who at the time was 245 pounds, in that spot.

The following year, he was moved to his more natural position at defensive end and was having a good season, ranking fifth on the team in tackles until tearing his ACL in a game at TCU in November.

Although he started the second half of the 2010 season, he was never 100 percent because of that annoying knee brace.

A 3.25 student, Shelby will graduate after this semester in criminology and will work in law enforcement when his football playing days are over.

Despite all of the praise for Shelby, Whittingham has just one criticism — his somersault into the end zone on his touchdown after the interception against Pitt, which resulted in a penalty.

Shelby chuckled when asked about it, but said, "It was one of those times of the game where I could have just run in. I think they were out of timeouts, and it was the end of the game ... But I've just got to be smarter next time, because you never know."

For Shelby that was his second touchdown of the year — he fell on Jake Heaps' fumble in the BYU victory — and one of the highlights of his college career.

"The first one I was in the right place at the right time, but the second one is one I'll remember for a long time," he said. "Nobody ever expects a D-lineman to get a pick six so it was pretty exciting, a story I can tell in the future."

Utes on the air

Utah (3-3, 0-3 Pac-12) at California (3-3, 0-3)

Saturday, 5 p.m. MT

AT&T Park, San Francisco

TV: KJZZ Radio: 700 AM

Derrick Shelby file

6-foot-3, 270 pounds

Hometown: Houston, Texas

4-year starter on Ute defensive line

Pac-12 defensive player of the week

Walter Camp national player of the week

email: sor@desnews.com