Patience pays off

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When Kaelin Clay receives a kick, one word runs through his mind: patience.

“Be patient, you have to be patient,” Clay said. “A lot of people just want to go and hit it right now. But you have to be patient, you have to find the right hole.”

After returning two kicks for touchdowns in Utah’s opening victory against Idaho State last Thursday, Clay’s star has gone on a meteoric rise. That rise, however, came after years of waiting.

The game against the Bengals marked Clay’s first Division I game, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Coming out of high school, Clay signed with Cal and redshirted his freshman season back in 2010. In 2011 Clay was injured, and by 2012 Clay was suiting up away from the bright lights of big-time college football at Mt. San Antonio.

For two years, he led the junior college in receiving and returning, and soon his fate changed when he met two return specialists while training at his home in Long Beach. Clay trains with a man in his hometown he refers to as JT. Two former Utah return legends just so happen to go to the same trainer.

About a year and half ago, Clay was introduced to the two former Utes, Shaky Smithson and Reggie Dunn. The three became close instantly, and soon Smithson and Dunn were filling Clay’s head with tips and advice. They also told him to go to one place to fulfill his dreams — Utah.

At the time, Clay was undecided on where he wanted to transfer to for his final year of eligibility, but that soon changed.

“Shaky and Reggie told me that’s the place to go,” Clay said. “I think after I had that talk, the next week, it might even have been the day after, I committed [to Utah].”

Even after leaving a Pac-12 program and toiling for two years in the JC ranks, Clay’s test of patience wasn’t over. Clay participated in spring ball, but ‘bad communication’ caused him to miss the first part of fall camp.

“It was just some things with my math class,” Clay said. “Just bad communication between the school and myself. That was basically it, it wasn’t really nothing too big, but it did set me back a month or two.”

Last Thursday, his patience paid off when, in the second quarter, Clay was finally able to show what he could do. As Clay torched the Idaho State punt coverage team, one of the men that helped bring him to Utah watched from the sideline. Dunn greeted Clay after the return and said. “OK, Shaky’s record might be in jeopardy but mine isn’t and if it is, let me see you take a kick off return back.”

Smithson holds the Utah record for most punt return yards in a season, while Dunn holds the Utah and NCAA record for most 100-yard touchdown returns. A quarter later, Clay proved that both records may be in trouble. In the third quarter, Clay received a kick off in the corner end zone and raced up the sideline for a score. After the touchdown, Dunn came over to Clay and said, “I’m a true believer. I believe it. It’s real.”

Clay’s exploits didn’t just earn him the increased respect of Dunn, Smithson and the Utah faithful, it earned him the top spot on Sportscenter’s top 10 plays. As ESPN was broadcasting Clay’s speed for the nation to see, the star returner was sound asleep.

“After Thursday I went home, I spent time with my family and I actually just fell asleep,” Clay said. “My phone was dead, and I woke up and I had text messages, people calling me, ‘You’re on Sportscenter! You’re on Sportscenter!’ So I turned the TV on and [saw] it. That was a pretty good sight to see.”

On Monday, Utah coaches rewarded Clay for his performance by making him not just the go-to returner, but also the starting slot receiver.

“Obviously they want me in that role so now I have to push myself to stay there,” Clay said. “If I don’t, the results will change. I am going to go out there and work as hard as I can, if that means staying out after practice or staying in early to run, then that’s what I have to do.”

He is committed to doing everything to keep his momentum going — he’s been too patient not to.

r.miller@chronicle.utah.edu

@millerjryan

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