SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — One quality that teammates and coaches love about Utah quarterback Jason Shelley is his confidence.
The moment never seems to be too big for the redshirt freshman.
Nothing exemplifies that better than a second-quarter play Shelley made against BYU. With the No. 17 Utes struggling to get their offense going in the first half of a 35-27 victory over the Cougars last weekend, Shelley sprinted 11 yards into BYU territory for a key first down, hurdling cornerback Keenan Ellis along the way.
“I’ve never hurdled anybody before and I just tell people, ‘Don’t hurdle. It’s dangerous. Not the right thing to do,'” Shelley said. “That was a reflex. I’m not going to lie to you.”
Shelley’s willingness to act on instinct and do whatever needs to be done to win is one key reason Utah is playing No. 10 Washington in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night. He has gone 3-0 as a starter since stepping in for Tyler Huntley after Huntley broke his collarbone in a 38-20 loss to Arizona State.
The Utes haven’t taken a step backward with Shelley at the controls. He hasn’t committed a turnover and his poise on and off the field has rubbed off on the rest of the team.
“As a leader, the team really responds to him,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “He’s a guy that’s really got the respect of his teammates and that’s through his work ethic, how he’s performed, and who he is. He’s a professional.”
For Shelley, it’s a satisfying step in a season that began with speculation about whether he would ultimately even remain a quarterback or get moved to a different position. Shelley faced an intense battle with freshman Jack Tuttle in spring and fall camp for the No. 2 quarterback spot. Shelley ultimately prevailed over Tuttle, a four-star recruit from Utah’s 2018 signing class who has since left the program, and won the backup job.
Now he is proving himself worthy of being a starter.
None of Shelley’s key stats really jump off the page. He has thrown for 624 yards and three touchdowns over the last three games, while completing 58.5 percent of his passes. But his knack for making big plays does catch fans’ attention.
In wins over Oregon and Colorado, Shelley connected with receivers on deep passes at critical junctures. Then, against BYU, he did damage with his legs, rushing for a career-high 61 yards, including an impromptu 33-yard run for Utah’s final touchdown with 1:43 left.
“I was just trying to run the clock out and then there was a lot of grass, so I figured I could seal the game with a touchdown,” Shelley said.
Offensive production is holding steady under Shelley’s leadership.
The Utes averaged 41.0 points and 481.8 total yards during a four-game winning streak in October. After Huntley and lead running back Zack Moss went down with injuries, Utah has ripped off three straight wins while averaging 32.3 points and 393.3 yards.
Whittingham credits offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Troy Taylor for scripting plays that are tailored to Shelley’s specific skills. He has many of the same dual-threat qualities as Huntley, but the plays with Shelley incorporate nuances that play to his strengths at the position.
Shelley does his part by not trying to do too much by himself.
“He never presses,” Whittingham said. “He doesn’t try to make a play when there’s not one there to be made.”
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