SALT LAKE CITY – Jon Hays had giant red turf burns visible along both elbows and he acknowledged he was sore all over.
For a player once without a team, then so far under the radar two freshmen were generating more buzz, the Utah quarterback was hardly complaining. The QB not recruited by any Division I school until a roundabout journey to Salt Lake City last year is now the offensive leader on a squad riding high after a 27-24 upset win over rival BYU.
"He's tough as nails," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the 6-foot, 208-pound senior. "He takes some shots, and picks himself right back up every time. That mental and physical toughness is infectious to the rest of the team."
While it's certainly early, with a tough game at Arizona State this weekend, followed by two more Pac-12 South matchups against USC and UCLA, Hays is a big reason Utah (2-1) has hope following Jordan Wynn's career-ending shoulder injury.
Running back John White carried the team in 2011 in Wynn's absence, but with White sidelined by an ankle injury last weekend, Hays needed to step up.
He did, completing 18 of 27 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. He went deep on first down, and converted some critical plays on third, both while scrambling and standing firm in the pocket.
When it was finally over, 2 minutes before midnight, frenzied fans who turned sold-out Rice-Eccles Stadium into a giant mosh pit carried Hays off on their shoulders.
"Surreal," Hays would say later.
Whereas Wynn had the brains to lead the Utes, just not the ability to withstand the hits, Hays has been smart and fearless and inspiring.
He absorbed a big hit from behind on a 14-yard pass to DeVonte Christopher on third and 11, and endured a bigger shot a few plays later on a blitz.
"You can take the hit and throw an incomplete pass or take the hit and throw a complete pass," Hays said of his mentality. "A complete pass feels a whole lot better."
High school coach Rick Prinz, watching from Hays' Northern California hometown of Paradise, wasn't surprised to see the gritty QB pop back up each time against BYU.
"I know that he's thinking, 'I'm not going to let these guys think they got me,'" Prinz said. "He's not going to show pain."
Utah teammates have taken notice.
"Sometimes the quarterback gets the reputation for being soft," Utah wide receiver Reggie Dunn said. "Jon is just a pure football player, almost Tebow-esque. He deserves every opportunity he gets this year."
This spring, it didn't seem he'd get any — even after finishing with a 6-3 record last season and a Sun Bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
Wynn had put on muscle and was pronouncing himself primed for the season. The Utes also had two talented freshmen in camp, with local 5A player of the year Chase Hansen and 6-foot-7 California recruit Travis Wilson.
"It was really easy to forget about Jon Hays, even after he won us a big bowl game," Dunn said. "He was under the radar. But he continued to work as hard as anybody."
Hays fought his way back up the depth chart to earn the No. 2 job behind Wynn, though Wilson was the QB seeing spot action in the wildcat.
"Sometimes he gets overlooked because someone else might have the better eye test," Prinz said of Hays' not-so-prototypical size. "But I think it drives him and makes him better. I would love to see when they just say, 'You're the guy.' Then he will even go to another level."
For now, Hays is the first to acknowledge his journey back to No. 1 from nowhere 16 months ago has been a roller coaster ride.
Hays played at the same California junior college (Butte) as Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers. But as a sophomore in 2010, he threw as many interceptions as touchdowns (10) and completed just 54 percent of his passes — perhaps a big reason he was headed for Division II Nebraska-Omaha until it discontinued its football program.
At the time, Hays said it was the lowest point in his career.
"But looking back on it, I guess that would be my high point now," said Hays, who signed with Utah after getting the call from then-offensive coordinator Norm Chow. "It's just kind of crazy how things worked out."
A lot has changed in a year.
Hays was thrown into the fire after Wynn's season-ending operation last October, and struggled early even with a scaled-down playbook.
In his first start, against Arizona State on Oct. 8, he threw for 199 yards but also tossed three interceptions in the 35-14 loss.
"I was really disappointed with my performance. I made some mistakes that I definitely wouldn't make this year," said Hays. "I'm just excited to get back out there and have a chance to redeem myself."