When Utah State opens the football season Saturday afternoon, the starting quarterback will be Jason Shelley.
Wait, isn’t he the …
Yes, he is. He spent the last three years at the University of Utah. He started five games at quarterback in 2018. He played in nine games last season, but not much, and threw only 11 passes before he was moved to defense.
Which is why he is in Logan now. He transferred to Utah State so he could become a starting quarterback, and so he has.
Several quarterbacks have left Utah over the years in a search for playing time, including Brandon Cox, Corbin Louks and Jack Tuttle, who left because, ironically, the Utes promoted Shelley ahead of him as the team’s No. 2 quarterback in 2018. Tuttle, a widely recruited high school player, wound up at Indiana. And now Shelley is at Utah State.
The Utes’ starting quarterback is expected to be Jake Bentley, who is also — you guessed it — a transfer. He has been competing for the starting job with Cameron Rising, who is — yes — a transfer from the University of Texas.
For every quarterback the Utes lose, they gain another one, which is true at just about every school in college football.
“ … In today’s world, with the (transfer) portal and the way things are changing, the quarterback room can change dramatically from year to year,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham told Sports Illustrated.
Bentley started 33 games at South Carolina and served as team captain for three seasons. He threw for 7,527 yards, 55 touchdowns and 32 interceptions and was 19-14 as a starter. He helped South Carolina reach the Outback Bowl in 2017 and the Belk Bowl in 2018 (he was MVP of the former). As a junior he threw for 3,171 yards, 27 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, playing mostly against tough SEC competition. Bentley suffered a season-ending foot injury in the 2019 season opener and after the season, he graduated and he transferred to Utah.
Bentley, who grew up in South Carolina, has stated that he came to Utah because he wanted to play for offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who has a history of prolific offenses and quarterbacks, and because he wanted a change of scenery. At 6-foot-4, he is a pure drop-back passer, something Utah hasn’t had much in the last two decades. He rushed for only 143 yards in 33 games at South Carolina.
The stability in most college quarterback rooms has not been helped by a tendency to name starting quarterbacks when they are freshmen and sophomores, which scares off both older players and high school recruits. In Utah’s case, in the last 15 years Tyler Huntley started for three seasons, Travis Wilson four seasons, Jordan Wynn three seasons (although he was frequently injured and wound up retiring before his senior season for that reason), and Brian Johnson three seasons.
Shelley came to Utah as a freshman in 2017 knowing that incumbent starter Troy Williams and Huntley were ahead of him on the depth chart, and the latter was only a sophomore. Shelley redshirted and Huntley wound up winning the starting role, which meant Shelley would be stuck on the bench the next two seasons. But early on he was given a chance to play.
As a redshirt freshman, Shelley replaced the injured Huntley during the ninth game of the season and started the remaining five games, including the 2018 Holiday Bowl against Northwestern. He completed 98 of 168 passes (58.3%) for 1,162 yards, with five touchdowns and six interceptions. The Utes won the first three games he started, against Oregon, Colorado and BYU. They trailed BYU by 20 points in the third quarter when Shelley led the Utes on four straight touchdown drives, the last one ending with his game sealing 33-yard scoring run. Final score: 35-27.
With Shelley at quarterback in the remaining two games, the Utes lost 10-3 to Washington in the Pac-12 championship game and 31-20 to Northwestern in the Holiday Bowl. In the latter, the Utes opened a 20-3 halftime lead with two touchdown passes from Shelley, but gave up 28 unanswered points.
As a sophomore, Shelley saw little action at quarterback and coaches moved him to safety for the Alamo Bowl to compensate for an injury-thinned secondary (he had one tackle in the game). The coaches liked what they saw and made the change permanent, with plans to play him this season at free safety.
Any hopes Shelley had of playing quarterback were dashed when Bentley arrived from South Carolina. Asked when he had last played defense, Shelley told The Athletic, “I threw six picks last year and I don’t remember making a tackle on a single one of them.” Apparently, he forgot about the single tackle he made in the Alamo Bowl.
By transferring to USU, he was given immediate eligibility by the NCAA and was granted his wish to return to quarterback and play as a starter. He is replacing Jordan Love, who was a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. Shelley’s grandfather Phillip played football for the Aggies in the ’70s.
Shelley’s experience in big games should help him at USU. He played in Utah’s big rivalry game against BYU. He played in the Pac-12 championship game. He played in the Holiday Bowl. He’s played as a starter three times in front of more than 46,000 fans. The only way he’ll play defense in Logan is if he throws a pick that might require him to tackle someone.