Junior quarterback Jon Hays arrived in Salt Lake City in June, looking to join a team that is notoriously close and tight-knit. Two short months later, he looks as if he's been with the program for two years.
With Jordan Wynn limited by his recovery from off-season shoulder surgery and illness, Hays has had a rare opportunity to take a huge majority of the reps at quarterback over the course of fall camp. The Utes, who have expressed confidence in Wynn and his recovery, say the reps Hays has gotten as a result of Wynn's absence are a silver lining.
"Tremendous. Tremendous," said Norm Chow of the opportunity and number of reps Hays has received in fall camp.
"I told [Jon] that there's going to come a time this season when he's going to have to come in and win a game for us," Chow expounded. "When that time is, I don't know but there's going to come a time, and he has to be ready."
Hays, quietly confident, says he is ready. Or will be.
"I've come a long way, but I have a long way to go still. I try not to get overwhelmed by it and take it in stride. All I can do is what I can do. I'm getting better every day and more comfortable every day," Hays explained. "If I keep doing that and push myself to get that much better each day, every rep even, I'll get there."
Thursday's post-practice comments confirmed Hays' mantra.
"I thought Jon Hays took some steps forward. He's getting all the reps with the ones right now. He's tightening up a lot of the loose ends that have been showing up," coach Kyle Whittingham said after practice Thursday. "He's starting to make fewer mistakes."
Typically the challenge for any new player to a program is absorbing the playbook and the all that entails. For Hays, the learning curve has been remarkably small.
"I came from a pro-style offense at Butte, so it isn't that different for me. It's more complex and the terminology is different," Hays said. "But the offense itself feels pretty familiar."
On top of the playbook, quarterbacks also carry the additional burden of having to command a huddle and get the other players to buy in. For some, that is often as big a hurdle as the playbook.
"It is important [to command the huddle], for sure. For me, I came in here and I couldn't worry about who was friends with who, or how long they've known each other," Hays explained. "There wasn't time for it, so I just came in here and tried to show I was going to work harder than anyone else and show them they could trust in me. You don't come in and ask for respect, you either earn it or you demand or expect it. I don't know the right way to put it, but I've kind of done both. No one's going to follow you if you don't."
With just three days left in camp, it seems the pieces of the offense have come together, despite the patchwork offensive line and the hiccup of Hays and Wynn rotating in and out so often.
The Ute offense, under Hays, came alive Thursday and moved the ball fairly easily on what is bound to be one of the best defenses in the conference. More importantly, the attitude and the confidence was back after a week long absence, but Hays isn't thinking beyond one day at a time.
"I haven't thought about anything but taking advantage of the time I'm getting to learn. If I don't use every rep to get better every day, I'm not doing my job," Hays explained. "I can't afford to get distracted. It's easy to have a good day or a bad day and get hung up on it, but if you spend your time on that, you're not thinking about today."
Apparently, Hays' philosophy is working as Coach Whittingham acknowledges his progress almost daily. Perhaps more telling is that Hays' offensive teammates are responding and following his lead.
When Hays' time comes and he is called upon to win the game as Norm Chow suggests, most Ute fans will not have even heard his name prior to that moment. But his teammates will have confidence in him because of the valuable reps he maximized during fall camp, which is indeed a silver lining.