SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's trip to El Paso won't be the first time quarterback Jon Hays has gone bowling. The junior made a couple of postseason trips at Butte College. He was the starter in last year's ASBG (Associated Student Body Government) Bowl in Stockton, Calif., and the backup a year earlier at the Premier West Bank Bowl in Rocklin, Calif.
Both pale, obviously, to being the starter in the Sun Bowl against Georgia Tech on New Year's Eve.
"This is definitely a bigger atmosphere, nationally televised," Hays said with a laugh. "I'm looking forward to the opportunity."
Playing in the Sun Bowl is the next chapter in a career that has taken plenty of twists and turns in the past year. Originally ticketed for Div. II Nebraska-Omaha, Hays became a free agent of sorts when the school opted to drop football. He wound up signing with Utah shortly after spring ball was finished.
A few months later, Hays became the starter when Jordan Wynn suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the first half against Washington on Oct. 1. After mixed success early on, he wound up quarterbacking the Utes to four straight wins and bowl eligibility.
A national audience on CBS awaits.
"I guess it's part of the whole experience. There's been ups, there's been downs. It's been a crazy year for me really," Hays said. "I've gotten a lot of support from the team when I needed it. I'm just excited to go to the bowl game and get an opportunity to win."
Hays is 5-3 as Utah's starter since replacing Wynn.
"Imagine what would have happened had we not gone out and got Jon Hays. It would have been 0-and-whatever," said offensive coordinator Norm Chow. "We're lucky to have him. He played his backside off."
Although Hays has his limitations — nine touchdown passes and seven interceptions — he has gone five games without throwing a pick while effectively running the offense.
Statistics, though, aren't all that important to Hays.
"As long as we get the win, it really doesn't matter to me," he said while looking ahead to the Georgia Tech game. "We've got a really good bowl record here and we want to keep that rolling."
A strong individual showing, obviously, could give Hays a solid case to keep the job when spring ball rolls around. Wynn is expected to be back in the mix as well.
While noting that Wynn is "exceptional," Chow noted there will be some competition between the two.
"I think it's fair to say they're going to have to compete for the job because Jon certainly deserves that," Chow said.
Hays, however, isn't looking that far ahead.
"I love competition. Me and Jordan are both competitors. Our job is to make it hard on the coaches, really, so we'll go into that," he said. "But really I'm just focused on the bowl game and ending the season with a win."
Spring is spring when it comes, he emphasized, while calling himself a competitor.
"You don't want to just hand anything over and not compete," Hays said. "So I'm just going to compete and whatever happens, happens."
EXTRA POINTS: Former Utah coach Ron McBride spoke to the team at the end of Friday's practice. Ex-Ute offensive coordinator Mike Sanford also observed practice. ... Whittingham plans to watch former assistant coach Gary Andersen and Utah State play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on television Saturday afternoon. ... Running back John White IV, who injured his ankle in last month's loss to Colorado, could be back to 100 percent by sometime next week. ... The Utes will practice again this morning.
Lotulelei will return for his senior season
Utah nose tackle Star Lotulelei, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and Morris Award winner, has already decided to return for his senior season.
"I'll be back and hopefully help the team to go a little bit further next season," Lotulelei said after practice Friday.
The 6-foot-3, 325-pound team captain made his decision after consulting with family and hearing from some NFL scouts. The Bingham High and Snow College star also cited his education as a factor. He'll earn his degree next fall.
— Dirk Facer
Utah (7-5) vs. Georgia Tech (8-4)
El Paso, Texas
Dec. 31, noon (MT)
TV: CBS Radio: 700AM