One play away. That is arguably the most stereotypical phrase in college football, and for good reason. That is a phrase that is drilled into every players head as they practice and prepare for a game — that they’re just one play away from being the guy, and that’s the case with Jason Shelley. In the third quarter in the loss to Arizona State on Saturday, Tyler Huntley took a hard hit while avoiding pressure that probably ended his season. While it hasn’t been officially confirmed yet with a press release, it’s about as official as it gets — Tyler Huntley broke his collar bone ending a nice junior season as the starting QB for the Utes. Huntley finishes his season with 1,788 yards passing, 12 touchdowns, six interceptions, while rushing for 304 yards and four touchdowns.
Enter redshirt freshman Jason Shelley, from Little Elm, Texas. Per his bio at UtahUtes.com, Shelley was ranked 12th nationally among dual-threat quarterbacks by 247Sports and 27th by ESPN. He was a two-time honorable mention all-state, two-time All-District MVP, and was a unanimous 9-5A pick in 2015 and the 13-5A MVP in 2016. Shelley was a two-time All-District Offensive Newcomer of the Year (10-3A in 2013 and 9-5A in 2014). He passed for 2,975 yards (195-of-306) and 24 touchdowns (4 INT), and rushed 180 times for 629 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior. His junior season he threw for 3,716 yards (233-of-371) and 39 touchdowns (8 INT), while rushing for 1,661 yards (295 attempts) and 21 touchdowns.
This season, Shelley has seen action in 6 games, mostly in mop up duty, but he has gone 6 of 14 for 99 yards and the one interception. He has also rushed 9 times for 47 yards. Yesterday, after being thrust into the game, he did a nice job leading the Utes down the field a few times to get into scoring position. His performance in spring ball really jumped out to me, while he wasn’t Tyler Huntley good in spring, he was a standout whenever he was on the field. In the fall he beat out highly-touted Jack Tuttle for the backup QB job, which led to the transfer of the four-star quarterback. Shelley reminds me a lot of Huntley when he has played in scrimmages and practices. He is a little smaller, but his game mirrors Huntley’s in many ways. Which is why I’m not super concerned about the offense going into the final three games of the season.
This offense, as currently constructed, is not a quarterback driven offense. That’s not to take anything away from Huntley, who had some stand out games this season, especially against the likes of USC, but this offense is predicated around the offensive line and the running game. That makes a ton of sense when you have a running back as good as Zack Moss, who broke the 1000 yard barrier against ASU, and is just getting stronger as the season goes along.
For Shelley, he just needs to fill most of Huntley was able to do, which was hit passes downfield on play action, and then make some good decisions in the run game to keep the chains moving. He’s not going to be expected to sit back there and pick apart the defense, he just needs to keep the Utes on schedule.
A lot of that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the offensive line, and offensive coordinator Troy Taylor. Shelley has shown the ability to do just that in limited action this season. His 40 yard bomb to Jaylen Dixon against Weber State was a thing of beauty, and he did a nice job in that opening series against Arizona State hitting Covey on a nicely thrown screen pass, and some intermediate passes.
I don’t think the Utes need to reinvent the wheel here, just lean on the running game, and then get the ball into the hands of the receivers on some easy throws — especially to the likes of Britain Covey and Dixon. Then, just like with Huntley, when the offensive line can hold up in pass protection, which they have struggled with at times this season, hit a guy down field for a big play. Where Shelley’s decision making is going to have to match Huntley’s is in the QB run game. Huntley did a great job of picking up yards with his feet to keep the chains moving and keeping the defense honest. If Shelley can replicate that, then he’ll be ok. We did see him miss with a read-option read yesterday, where he should have given the ball to Moss in the red zone, but he decided to keep it and was dropped in the backfield. Reads like that come with experience, which is where Huntley had the major leg up over Shelley. If Shelley can make those reads, then he can keep this offense moving. One advantage I see Shelley having over Huntley is when he does get into the open field in the run game he is dynamic. Huntley is a good runner, but he can be a bit stiff and awkward when he runs, whereas Shelley looks like a slot receiver when he gets into the open field.
Overall, the game plan doesn’t really need to change that much. The defense needs to do what they’ve done all season, with the exception of the effort against ASU, and then the offense needs to do what they’ve done most the season, and that’s lean on Moss. As long as Shelley can keep defenses honest, not turn over the ball, and make the occasional play, then Utah can still win out, and with a little help from another team, make it to Santa Clara for the Pac-12 Championship Game. It all starts this week against Oregon, which is no easy task. Hopefully, after a full week of game planning and practice with the ones, Shelley will be ready to hit the ground running, because he’s being thrown into the deep end.