SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah’s offense takes the field Thursday night at BYU, it’ll mark a comeback for senior quarterback Tyler Huntley. He hasn’t played in a game since breaking his collarbone in a loss at Arizona State on Nov. 3.
Backup Jason Shelley, a redshirt freshman last season, wound up starting in wins over Oregon, Colorado and BYU — as well as a loss to Washington in the Pac-12 Championship Game and a setback to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl.
“It was hard sitting on the sidelines,” Huntley acknowledged. “I’m always ready to play football.”
Huntley added that he feels great now. As for past injuries, he chalks it up to being part of the game.
“Football is football,” Huntley said as he prepares to make his 20th career start for the Utes.
Utah will also unveil a revamped scheme under new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
“We feel good,” Huntley said. “The first game will tell us where we’re at and we’ve just got to continue to work from there.”
Huntley’s skill set, explained Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, is in line with what Ludwig has planned.
“It’s a great fit,” said Whittingham, who noted that Huntley is “just soaking in everything that Andy has to say to him.”
Huntley’s return has helped fuel the high expectations the 14th-ranked Utes have heading into the season. The Pac-12 media has them tagged as the favorites to win the conference. ESPN’s Lee Corso picked Utah to reach the national championship game.
“(Huntley’s) very excited to get back out and he’s looked outstanding all through spring and all through fall camp,” Whittingham said. “He’s ready to get back at it and show what he can do.”
Over 23 career appearances, Huntley has produced 5,115 yards of total offense. That includes 4,259 yards passing and 856 rushing.
Shelley, meanwhile, finds himself in a different role after making the five starts and playing in nine games last season.
“It’s not really weird. I would say (Huntley) works really hard and he earned the spot. So when he came back it was just like the beginning of the season all over again,” Shelley said. “I watched him play against (BYU) in 2017. So it’s nothing too new. I’m just excited to see him go.”
Having two experienced quarterbacks is good thing, obviously. Shelley passed for 1,162 yards and ran for 192 more last season.
“It’s a nice luxury to have, a backup with that much experience, and then we’re confident in (third stringer) Drew Lisk if it gets that far,” Whittingham said. “He’s a guy that’s been very dependable every day in practice, makes the right reads and does the right thing.”
As such, Whittingham readily admits that the Utes “feel we’re in a good situation at that position.”
Huntley said that’s just the way it is.
“We’ve had a lot of great quarterbacks come through here,” he continued. “So I don’t feel like anything is too much different.”
The goal, as always, is to go 1-0 each week. Huntley said the offense has made good progress adjusting to Ludwig. They know the scheme, what needs to get done and how to execute it.
Huntley isn’t letting the debut get overshadowed by the Rivalry Game. He’s not allowing the pregame chatter to be a distraction.
“They talk every year. You know what I’m saying? Nothing’s going to change this year,” Huntley said as Utah seeks its ninth consecutive victory over BYU.
The Utes have a specific goal on offense.
“We’ve just got to keep our defense on the sideline and make a lot of plays,” said Huntley, who added that he’s determined to let his play show what’s got to be done.
Huntley is quick to point out that the offense has a lot of weapons. Senior Zack Moss is seeking a third consecutive 1,000-yard season and the receiving corps includes talents like Britain Covey, Jaylen Dixon, Samson Nacua, Demari Simpkins and Bryan Thompson. Top tight ends include Cole Fotheringham and Brant Kuithe.
Then there’s a revamped offense line that is replacing three key contributors (Jordan Agasiva, Jackson Barton and Lo Falemaka) from last season. Offensive line coach Jim Harding acknowledged that it’s sad to lose veteran players, but noted that the position group had a good offseason.
“You’re always looking to get better, always wanting to make improvement,” Harding said. “But I do feel that the kids have made a lot of progress. I think it’s a really good group. They work hard, are really ambitious and eager to get out and going Thursday night.”
Ah, the Rivalry Game. The 100th meeting is the first to serve as a season opener.
When Shelley prepared to start against BYU last November, he said people told him to try to treat it like any other game.
“‘Don’t try to make the game bigger than it is,’” Shelley recalled. “I kind of took that and just played my game — even though it’s a rivalry game.”
Utah came from behind with a strong finish to claim a 35-27 victory over BYU at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Nov. 24. Shelley completed 19 of 28 passes for 141 yards and one touchdown. He ran for 61 yards and a score.
“I want to beat them,” Shelley said. “So I just try to do my best.”
That’s why his preparation never changes. Shelley’s approach doesn’t change whether he’s the scheduled starter or the backup.
“No, no, never. You can’t ever lack in that because you never know,” Shelley said. “You can get called at any time. So you’ve just got to be ready.”