Taming Texas!

Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, was a tough day for two teams from Texas. While BYU’s Taysom Hill was running all over the No. 15 Longhorns in Provo, New Mexico’s Kasey Carrier was slicing through UTEP in El Paso.

“They made sure I was comfortable. They took me to meetings and to our meals. They made me feel like I was family. To come into a receiver room as a new guy and think you are a starter right away can rub people wrong. I was surprised by how the players took me in.” — former BYU receiver Jordan Leslie

Hill’s 259 rushing yards and three touchdowns carried the Cougars to a convincing 40-21 victory. At the same time, Carrier’s 291 rushing yards and four touchdowns were enough to beat the Miners 42-35 in overtime.

UTEP receiver Jordan Leslie caught five passes for 12 yards. Disappointed in how the night had gone, Leslie showered, left the Sun Bowl and went home to watch ESPN. Seeing the headlines from Provo made him feel better — and not because he was a BYU fan.

“I didn’t watch the game because we were playing, but I saw the highlights of Taysom running up and down that field,” Leslie said. “UT was my dream school, but they didn’t offer me, so I didn’t mind seeing them getting mopped up. I was thinking at the time that they should have had me out there.”

In a twist of fate, 364 days later, Leslie was out there, playing in the biggest game of his life against a team he had spent his whole life hoping to play for.

To make it happen, he first had to dance through the transfer process. In his own version of the Texas two-step, Leslie moved from El Paso to Provo and as good fortune would have it, there on BYU’s 2014 schedule was his longed-for shot at the Longhorns in Austin.

Grad transfer

With his electrical engineering degree in hand, Leslie decided to leave UTEP after the Miners’ 2-10 season and play his final year somewhere else. Guy Holliday, the Miners’ former receivers coach, had left UTEP for the same position at BYU in 2013.

“Transferring schools is not like it is now,” Leslie said. “You didn’t have the portal for schools to reach out to you. You are kind of on your own.”

Holliday caught wind that Leslie was on the move, and he didn’t waste any time pitching Provo.

“Once he found out I was transferring, he said, ‘There is no better place for me than BYU,’” Leslie recalled. “I visited campus and loved the environment. I knew I was going to be with somebody I could trust and a program that had a great fan base.”

Holliday has own reasons too.

“Honestly, I felt like we needed some toughness, and he knew the work ethic that I liked,” Holliday said. “I thought we needed to change the culture in that room. I needed someone who had already experienced that. You need a leader to change the culture and he was that to me.”           

The adjustment

When Leslie showed up for his first day of practice at BYU, Hill and receiver Mitch Mathews met him at the door.

“They made sure I was comfortable. They took me to meetings and to our meals. They made me feel like I was family,” Leslie said. “To come into a receiver room as a new guy and think you are a starter right away can rub people wrong. I was surprised by how the players took me in.”

Leslie and Mathews went to work to create a receiving tandem for Hill and Christian Stewart that would be tough to stop.

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“I don’t think I ever competed with anyone more than I did with Jordan,” Mathews said. “He raised my game so much. Teams couldn’t double team either of us or they got in trouble. I loved the impact he made right away.”

The two receivers influenced each other on and off the field.

“Mitch invited me to everything. He was always coming by my apartment. He had a huge impact on me,” Leslie said. “When you have somebody else as talented as Mitch, it makes you work harder. I couldn’t take days off because I knew Mitch was going to be out there.”

In their one run together, the tandem combined for 128 receptions, 1,701 yards and 16 touchdowns during a season where the Cougars lost Hill in a Week 5 injury and replaced him with Stewart.

“As a grad transfer from UTEP, I don’t think any of us had expectations for him,” Stewart said. “But when he got here, we saw that he was pretty big (6-foot-3, 215-pounds). He could run and he was smart. He was able to step in and play — something we weren’t anticipating.”

Mission accomplished

Austin is a 130-mile drive from the Houston suburb of Tomball, Texas, where Leslie grew up. He and his family had been waiting a lifetime to make the trip. Leslie was a three-sport star in high school and fostered a sole goal to play at UT.

As 93,463 fans settled into Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium, Leslie’s dream was about to come true, but not in the way he ever expected. The beloved team of his boyhood, dressed in the traditional burnt orange, was lined up opposite from him and his brand-new friends who were wearing blue and white.

BYU receiver Jordan Leslie catches a pass against Texas’ Antwuan Davis during game against Texas in Austin, Texas, Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. | Michael Thomas, Associated Press

“It was on my mind all week,” Leslie recalled. “I wanted to get there my whole life. They recruited me. I thought they were going to offer me a scholarship, but they never did. I felt like I was good enough to play for them. Having the opportunity to go out there with the Cougars and put a good whooping on them meant a lot. It was a night I will never forget.”

Hill understood the magnitude of the moment, especially considering what BYU had done to Texas the year before in Provo. But he was also aware of Leslie’s journey, and he promised to find him early and often. Holliday, who knew Leslie better than anyone in the program, understood that this was no ordinary football game.

“It was huge! Eighty percent of the kids growing up in Texas want to play at Texas. They are the flagship university,” he said. “It was a chance for Jordan to showcase his talent and to prove to (former Texas coach) Mack Brown and his staff that he was capable of playing at that level.”

BYU marched into the third quarter with a 6-0 lead when Hill leaped over a Texas defender during a 30-yard run to score the game’s first touchdown. A few minutes later, following a punt, the Cougars went back on the attack and Leslie was to be the target.

“The play call was a corner post, which brought me back to the middle of the field,” Leslie said. “Taysom got hit as he was throwing the ball, so I had to come back for the pass.”

Leslie fought off the defender and despite the ball being tipped out of his hands twice, he managed to pull it in for a first down at the Texas 16-yard line. The crowd gasped in disbelief.

“Jordan had an unbelievable knack to track the ball in traffic and maintain his concentration,” Holliday said. “I had seen him make plays like that before. I wasn’t surprised, but for him to do it on that stage, in that game, it was probably the biggest play of his career.”

The catch earned a place among the greatest in BYU history, but it’s the very next pass that Leslie will never forget.

BYU’s quarterback Taysom Hill pushes Texas’ Adrian Colbert away on a run that was called back as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Austin Texas. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I remember getting up from that play and I was so hyped,” Leslie said. “The next play Hill tried to give me a hitch for the touchdown and the ball went right through my hands.”

The drive ended with an Adam Hine 16-yard touchdown run, which triggered a second consecutive blowout of No. 25 Texas. Leslie led all receivers with seven catches for 85 yards in a 41-7 victory.

“(The catch) got us going and we ran away with it,” Leslie said. “It was absolutely amazing.”

BYU returns to Austin

The Cougars are 4-1 against Texas and return to Austin on Oct. 28 to face the Longhorns as members of the Big 12. Texas leaves the conference for the SEC next year, so the likelihood of additional future games appears slim.

That makes the night even bigger for a pair of Cougars who hail from the Lone Star State. Junior receiver Keanu Hill grew up in Euless. His uncle, Roy Williams, is in the University of Texas Hall of Honor.

Sophomore quarterback Cade Fennegan is from Dallas. Several of the records he shattered at Woodrow Wilson High once belonged to Davey O’Brien, whose legacy includes the “Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award.”

If Hill and Fennegan take an extra look around the place when the Cougars run out of the locker room that night, no one will understand more than Leslie. The Texas kid who once thought burnt orange ran through his veins now bleeds blue.

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“I’ll never love Texas like I used to,” he said. “I’m always cheering for the Cougars. I hope they can go down there and make a name for themselves.”

Grad-transfer advice

Leslie also shares something in common with BYU’s current group of grad transfers, including quarterback Kedon Slovis, running back Aidan Robbins, linebacker AJ Vongphachanh, cornerback Eddie Heckard and others who may be new to the culture and looking to produce right away.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from,” Leslie said. “At the end of the day, if you are a Cougar and you work hard and perform to the best of your abilities, the fans will love you and it will be a great experience. But it’s all about the work you put in.”

“Also, find someone on the team who has been there a while, who has a family and can provide some love,” he said. “Sometimes when you are away from everybody it can be a little tough. In addition to Mitch, Taysom and some others, Christian Stewart was great at inviting me to Thanksgiving dinners and ‘Family Nights.’ He made me feel like I had a second family in Utah.”

Stewart quickly realized that Leslie provided a big piece the program had been struggling to find.

“He brought maturity and leadership to a lot of guys on the team who weren’t members of the church,” Stewart said. “I loved that about him. On the field he was a burner. You could send him on a go route and put it up for him.”

Three of Leslie’s last four receptions at BYU went for touchdowns. Stewart hit him on scoring strikes of 83, 38 and 27 yards. He finished his one-year stint in Provo with 55 receptions for 779 yards, six touchdowns and one rushing touchdown.

Post BYU

Leslie had high hopes for an NFL career but finished with just one reception — a one-handed 26-yard grab for the Cleveland Browns against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 22, 2017.

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“The NFL is a tough league. It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” he said. “When I was given the opportunity, I went out and made plays. That’s what I tell my athletes now. No regrets.”

Leslie and Holliday operate a 26,000-square-foot sports performance facility in the Chandler-Tempe, Arizona, area with the goal of being an all-in-one destination to train athletes of all ages.

The idea of two indoor, air-conditioned football fields in Arizona is about as genius as it was for Leslie to take a chance on BYU — which gave him the chance to show Texas that when it came to his recruitment, the Longhorns were grazing in the wrong pasture.

BYU wide receiver Jordan Leslie runs after a catch as BYU and Virginia to play Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, in Provo.
BYU wide receiver Jordan Leslie runs after a catch as BYU and Virginia to play Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com. 

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