Jon Hays squinted into a buzzard-hot morning sun as he walked off the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, after having stood through most of Utah's first scrimmage in the middle of Jordan Wynn's shadow.
There's nothing new about that.
Except that now shade is coming from a tall figure on the other side of him, too.
Wynn, the Utes' starting quarterback, completed 8 of 16 passes for 123 yards with three touchdowns and one pick. Hays, the backup, hit 2 of 5 throws for 55 yards. Travis Wilson, the third-string freshman who had been so impressive during spring ball, nailed 6 of 7 passes for 65 yards.
It's early in fall camp yet, but Hays, the uh-oh reserve QB from last season who was more a plumber at the controls of Utah's attack than any kind of maestro, has thus far confirmed his status as Wynn's first replacement. For the most part, his throws in Brian Johnson's newly installed spread have been on time and on target. Just when a lot of Ute fans wanted to stash away the heretofore mundane Hays, and the memories of last year's sluggish offense, to celebrate the ascent of the 6-foot-6, 220-pound 18-year-old newcomer, a strange thing happened.
Hays came alive.
"The difference between me now and last year at this time is night and day," he said. "My biggest improvement has come during the offseason. I've taken in a lot from coach Johnson. I get this offense, and I love it. I've become a lot more accurate. It's a quarterback-friendly offense and allows me to get the ball to our playmakers."
Said Johnson: "Jon's worked hard, and he's definitely better than he was. He's much more comfortable. He understands what we're trying to do. I feel good about having him in the game, if …"
Yeah … if.
Hays has grown accustomed to doing his work, making his progress, under the thick cloud of Wynn's ever-present injury status. He's well aware of what almost everyone says about the Utes' prospects this season: They'll do fine, if the fragile Wynn finally stays healthy. If not … well, then, maybe the freshman can come to the rescue.
"I'm used to being overlooked and doubted," he said. "I don't pay attention to it. The negative doesn't get to me. That's been the story of my life."
Hays has never been a spectacular player. Between going to school and working in his dad's glass works shop in Paradise, Calif., he gleaned the value of the daily grind. "With my father, I learned there was a time to have fun and a time to go to work," he said. "I learned the importance of being tough."
He ran a Wing-T attack in high school, with a wrench in one hand and the ball in the other. Despite his team winning two section championships, not one four-year college offered him a scholarship. He was counting on something coming from Southern Oregon, but … nothing.
"It's hard not being wanted," he said. "I had big-time dreams, but couldn't get coaches to call me back."
Butte College, a junior college located 15 minutes from his home, eventually welcomed him. It was the same JC for which Aaron Rodgers had played. Brett Ratliff, the former Ute quarterback, also played there.
True to form, he was adequate. Nothing profound, nothing embarrassing. But when Hays finished at Butte, he was overlooked again until Nebraska-Omaha, a Division II school, called. He jumped on that, and that is where Hays would be playing now had Omaha not dropped football just two months later.
Thereafter, Norm Chow, Utah's erstwhile offensive coordinator, heard about Hays while scouring the country for reinforcements at the quarterback spot. Hays was thrilled when Chow offered to pick him up.
"But then, I was just thrown into camp," he said. "I had no spring ball that year, and I was overwhelmed."
You could double that when Wynn got injured early in the season against Washington and Hays was tossed into action in the Pac-12. No longer was he faced with shredding Washburn's or Chadron State's defensive secondary.
"That was all a shock to me," Hays said.
Having completed 120 of 214 passes for 1,459 yards, including 12 touchdowns and 8 interceptions, and having worked his tail off through spring and summer, Hays said now he is ready to legitimately contribute … if needed.
"I'm not worried about anything," he said. "I definitely want Jordan to stay healthy you never want to see anyone get hurt. But if necessary, I'm confident I can come in and play. I feel good about all our quarterbacks. But I feel real good about where I am and how far I've come to this point.
"I've learned not to listen to doubters, just that you have to dig deep down into yourself. Confidence comes from hard work and from belief. Well, I've worked hard and I believe."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.