October 13, 2011

Finally famous

I'm still dreaming bigger than I'm living
And just sleeping long enough to dream
Spent long enough in the sheets
It's time to turn it to the real thing

Those are the first words going through senior defensive end Derrick Shelby's mind prior to every Utah football game. The lyrics represent the opening verse of hip hop artist Big Sean's 'Finally Famous' album, which has become a part of Shelby's pre-game ritual as he prepares to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

Perhaps, 'Finally Famous' is the sound track to a potentially life-changing season for Shelby, as he is starting to show flashes of a player who can be a game-changer - something he needs to do in order to have the type of senior season that will afford him the opportunity to play at the next level.

Pursuing a career in the NFL has been a goal and priority for the Houston native, and Utah's history of putting defensive linemen in the league a big reason for choosing Utah.

"Lately I've been hearing a lot about how they have a few good players in the league," Shelby told UteZone in 2006 at the time of his commitment. "Their line coach put twelve guys in the NFL in the past seven years I was told."

Today, Shelby's perspective is no different. "Utah has sent so many guys to the league since I've been here. It seems like every year someone makes a roster," Shelby observed. "So yeah, that was a really huge thing for me in my decision to commit."

Shelby was hosted by former big-name Ute defensive linemen Gabe Long and Martail Burnett on his recruiting trip to Salt Lake City. Once a Ute, exposure to the veteran, high-caliber defensive ends left a lasting impression on Shelby, as he played and learned alongside teammates Kenape Eliapo, Greg Newman in addition to Long and Burnett.

"Without those guys, I wouldn't have played as much as I did my redshirt freshman year. I was able to learn so much from them and take so much from them. Without them, I don't play that year," Shelby credited. 'That's all I've got to say about that, because nobody comes along that fast unless they're just that good of a player, or without a lot of help. I had a lot of help."

While not famous just yet, Shelby's name is getting called an awful lot as he makes big play after big play. This season he is starting to display his capabilities on the field as has been expected of him since early in his career. From day one, expectations have been high due to his seemingly limitless ceiling as an impressive athlete with a good motor and high football IQ.

As evidence of that, Shelby was thrust into immediate action as a redshirt freshman in 2008 and made a huge impact - not felt at his natural defensive end position, but at defensive tackle filling in due to a string of injuries that season. Shelby thrived in surprising fashion, plugging the defensive interior line all the way to a 13-0 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance, which he would point to as his most meaningful memory as a Utah player.

"Definitely that Sugar Bowl game. National TV, so many people back home and all my friends watching it, and seeing me out there. It was close to home in Houston, so it was big for me," recalled Shelby when asked what he would take away most from his time as a Ute.

Utah's second trip to a BCS game was particularly sweet for the Houston native, as many friends and high school teammates questioned Shelby's commitment to Utah, a school far away from home and not quite a high profile program in their eyes.

"I took some heat for [the commitment to Utah]. Mostly jokes and teasing, but they didn't know or understand why I picked Utah," explained Shelby. "My high school coaches used to joke and tell me not to come back with two wives, and stuff like that."

Naturally, with all the questions, a Sugar Bowl appearance by the Utes, and Shelby playing as a redshirt freshman helped to dispel any question that he'd made the right decision. "I think they knew pretty quick that I made the right decision. I had early playing time, the Sugar Bowl," said Shelby. "This is my fourth year. I've only lost something like seven games. Seven games in four years isn't that bad."

Not bad at all. But the success enjoyed by both the Utes and Shelby doesn't mean there haven't been challenges. Playing out of position as Shelby did in that 2008 season would have been a tall order for any player, but even more-so for Shelby as he battled being inexperience as a freshman, and the fact that he was under-sized at 197 pounds. Shelby, however downplayed the challenges he faced while still appreciating the fact that the experience made him a better player.

"It wasn't really too big of a difference, or challenge. It was just going against heavier guys on a consistent, play-by-play basis. I was smaller, so it was harder getting guys off me once I saw the ball coming," explained Shelby. "It definitely made me better. If you can get around guards and those big guys, then going against tight ends shouldn't be a problem. That's how I looked at it, and that gave me a lot of confidence back at end."

While many freshmen become homesick or struggle with adjusting to the rigorous demands of juggling big-time college athletics and academics, Shelby's biggest challenge was adjusting to the physical demands of playing football at the FBS level, particularly the work in the weight room.

"The biggest struggle for me was the weight room workouts and running workouts. I was so small in high school, and I never touched the weights or anything like that," revealed Shelby. "When you come to college, they pretty much force it down your throat, so that was by far the hardest thing for me."

Returning to defensive end in 2009, Shelby started in 10 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury versus TCU. To that point, Shelby had notched 44 tackles and led the team with eight tackles for a loss including three sacks. The 2009 injury was another major hurdle for Shelby, whose role was expanding as he grew more confident and comfortable in the Ute defensive scheme. Today, however, Shelby believes he is a different person, and football player because of the experience.

"I think an injury like that changes you. When you have an injury like that, it just takes everything away from you. You can't run. You can't jump. You can't do the things you took for granted for so long," Shelby reflected. "Then that's definitely an eye opener, seeing what can be taken away from you so fast. I learned in football, and outside of it, that you have to put everything you have into everything you do. It drives you harder."

It seems then, that Shelby has taken that hard-earned wisdom and applied to all aspects of his life, including the classroom, where he has earned Academic All-MWC honors for three years running and is a member of the Utah Student Athlete Mentors program.

"Derrick is the example of everything you should do as a Utah football player. If you want to know what it takes, and what you have to do to be successful, look no further than that guy," said head coach Kyle Whittingham. "You are talking about a high-character guy who works hard, and basically, he just does everything right, on and off the field."

On the field, Shelby seems to be doing an awful lot right this season with the sixteen tackles credited him; a number that seems startlingly low, considering the fact that he seems to be involved in nearly every big defensive play of the season for the Utes. A closer examination of Shelby's statistics puts his season performance into a more accurate perspective: three tackles for a loss of 21 yards, two sacks for a loss of 19 yards, two quarterback hurries, three passes defended and three passes broken up and one fumble recovered - for a touchdown to open the game on the road versus BYU. In other words, 11 out of 16 of Shelby's credited plays have been game-changers, or at very least, highly impactful, to put it in other words.

Defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a wouldn't trade Shelby's contributions for a conversion to more impressive statistics or tackles.

"[Derrick's] football IQ is extremely, extremely high. He's an extremely intelligent player and is really a coach on the field," Kauha'aha'a said. "He knows exactly what's going on on every single play, at every single position. He knows the defense inside and out. You can't replace that knowledge, experience or leadership on a team. Those are things that Derrick brings, or possesses to the team and to the field that don't show up on the stat sheets."

Essentially, all Shelby does is make big plays, a carryover from his high school career at Houston's Hightower High School, where he blew up in his senior season, recording 33 tackles for loss to go along with his 15 sacks. The feat was made even more impressive considering that Shelby didn't play defense most of his life. Shelby was a second string tight end through most of his high school career until his senior season, when coaches noted his athleticism, and moved him to defensive end. For that reason, Shelby flew largely under the radar as a recruit out of high school, receiving scholarship offers from UTEP, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech and Utah.

For the open-minded Shelby, the choice to go to Utah was an easy one due to many different contributing factors, besides the program's penchant for sending players to the NFL.

"I grew up in Texas my whole life, so I think I just wanted a new experience. I think it was a combination of things. I really liked the coaching staff and the coaches recruiting me for Utah," explained Shelby. "The mountains and weather had something to do with it. The closeness of the team was important, but more than that, the diversity of the team. The makeup of the team was interesting to me. A lot of the guys I hung out with [on my visit] were Polynesians, and that was really different for me. That was a big positive."

As Utah entered its inaugural Pac-12 season, defensive coordinatorKalani Sitake expected more pass rush from a talented, but under-performing defensive line. Shelby's emergence early in the season is both promising and significant. For Ute coaches, the feeling was that the collective performance of the defensive line could be the catalyst or the spark that propels the rest of the team.

According to Coach Kauha'aha'a, having Shelby around has helped in that endeavor a great deal. "Derrick has made my job really easy as a new coach. He's a guy with a ton of experience and he runs the show up front. Derrick is the one that steers the ship," explained Kauha'aha'a. "I'm fortunate to come and have a guy with that kind of experience and leadership."

Now, with modified goals after an 0-3 conference start and an inconsistent offense with a tendency to put the Ute defense on it's heels with turnovers, Shelby and the rest of the line will be asked to keep the Utes in games by coming up with big stops in the red zone in order for the Utes to have a shot at finishing respectably in the Pac-12 and earning a bowl game berth. Shelby, despite his own personal goals and aspirations, will gladly answer the call for teammates, and family, which is what the team has become for him.

"I'm not here just to be me, me, me. I'm here to win. I'm here to do my part to win. Putting the team first is how it has to be. The team doesn't win with guys playing for themselves," Shelby explained. "When you do that, the team wins and when the team wins, good things come to the individuals in time. You can't worry about the results individually."

Fellow defensive lineman David Kruger can speak to the success of Shelby's ideology, much of which is based on the simple mantra of doing things right.

"There is no one, I would say, that owns his position more than Derrick. I think that his position and the way that he plays it, with knowledge, authority and total confidence is the biggest thing. That he totally owns his position brings confidence to everyone else on the line," Kruger said. "He is someone that you rely on, that you know is going to take care of his job or his duties, no matter what."

In a word, reliable.

When asked to describe Shelby, the first word out of every Ute player or coaches' mouths was reliable.

"I got that from my parents, I guess. We had chores, or homework and my mom would literally come and pull me off the street from my friends or whatever game I was playing outside if my work wasn't done. So I guess I just learned from a young age. I owe that to my mom," Shelby said. "Then when I got here, the coaches just kind of pushed me to a whole new level. I thought I had work ethic before coming here, and I did. But with the demands and expectation put on you by this program, you just learn to bump that up a notch."

By all accounts, Shelby has all the ingredients to pursue either of the two childhood dreams he harbored as a child in dusty Texas, NFL player or law enforcement officer. While the two career goals share common traits required in order to achieve them, the style and nature of both contrast in many ways just as equally. The contrast is fitting as Shelby is selfless, humble, unassuming, and hard-working, while simultaneously thriving in his high-profile role as a playmaker who aspires to the glitz and glamour of the NFL, where personality or persona seems to be as much a part of the game as talent, speed, strength and agility.

Perhaps it's possible that there are no contrasts, but rather that Shelby simply possesses the rare combination of all the attributes aforementioned. Perhaps with the well-adjusted perspective held by Shelby, the end goal isn't necessarily the thing as much as the journey, and one's own perspective, and handling of it.

Meaning, that whether or not he becomes an NFL star, or an officer of the law, Shelby will thrive and apply all the aspects that make him the football player, student, teammate and son that he is today, and be successful in whatever endeavor he chooses. That basic idea is encompassed in the closing verse of the Finally Famous introduction:

I turn mistakes into lessons
Dead ends to exits
On the journey of my life
So I'm inviting ya'll to get in
Let's go

However it is interpreted, one thing is clear: we are all invited to watch.

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