MURRAY — Four years ago, Murray Tigers football coach Keith Hodge turned to a freshman at quarterback and said, “Here. Lead.”
Four years later — with more than 7,000 yards passing, 92 total touchdowns and 25 wins in tow — his quarterback, senior Hunter Utley, opted for a new opportunity, and on Friday signed with the University of Memphis Tigers as a preferred walk-on for football beginning this fall.
“As he’s developed, worked on skills and done the things that he’s done, I knew the opportunity was going to be there,” Hodge said. “But, I think at this level at Memphis, I think they saw some of the intangibles that you just don’t see on film. They got to know him a little bit — some of the (Memphis) coaches did — and they got to know that he’s the ultimate teammate, he’s got a good work ethic, and he’s going to do things right.
“I think, ultimately, you’ve got to have that in a quarterback at that level. And I know there are special players out there, but if they can’t handle being in the locker room, the practice grind and all the things that are involved in it, it’s hard to take a shot on the kids. And I think Memphis saw some really good things in Utley, beyond the skills. And it’s going to see him go up there and just compete.”
Originally committed to the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg for the same position, Utley said he changed his final decision for one key reason:
“The more that I thought about it, it was a dream my whole life to play a Division I sport,” he said. “Why not go work for it, and go try? I feel like I would’ve regretted it if I didn’t. So I just thought that it felt right in my heart, and I love the city of Memphis, the coaches (at Memphis), and it’s a really good program.”
This isn’t to say the work wasn’t coming if he had chosen the NAIA Patriots, who last year carried five quarterbacks on the roster and have also added McCracken County star signal-caller Elijah Wheat as part of its Class of 2020.
Instead, Utley had an early PWO offer from the Tigers before some other schools came along, and it’s an opportunity that just kept nudging at him.
“Back last summer, coach Justin Crouse (Memphis director of player personnel) ... he graduated from Murray High School, so he knew some things,” Utley noted. “So I got in contact with him, and he had me come up on a visit with all of the coaches. Then, they came down and saw me throw at Murray High, and they just said they liked what they saw, and they’d be in contact with me.
“I went on a couple more visits, and we ended up playing (high school) baseball there, and I went on a couple visits then when we had free time. They just kept in contact with me. They told me that they didn’t have money for me right now, but they said if I can dedicate all my time, they feel as if I could earn something there.”
Memphis, in the American Athletic Conference, went 12-2 last season and captured an AAC championship against No. 21 Cincinnati, before falling 53-39 in a slugfest against No. 10 Penn State in the Cotton Bowl.
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