The wide receiver had gone from a traditional Southeastern Conference power that plays in front of more than 100,000 fans to a Conference USA school with a total enrollment of a little more than 4,000 students.
At Tennessee, Shelley could get lost in a classroom with 60 other students. But the Fort Smith native had nowhere to go in the small, intimate and academic-minded setting of Tulsa.
He had more papers to write, more homework to do, and if he didn't spend at least eight hours a week in study hall, he had more sprints to run at 5 a.m. Making matters worse, he was forced to sit out last season because of his transfer from Tennessee.
"The whole time you're not on the field, it's frustrating. You've got people doubting you," Shelley said. "People think you're living a bad life because you're not playing.
"They'd seen you in high school playing every game and then all of a sudden nobody hears from you in three years. So everybody's wondering what's going on with him."
Even Tulsa coach Todd Graham admits he had doubts at first about whether Shelley would last.
But after going two years without playing a football game, the 6-foot-4, 200-pound wide receiver is again showing the type of playmaking ability that made him a star at Forth Smith Southside.
Shelley has emerged as another weapon in Tulsa's high-powered, no-huddle offense, which leads the nation in total yards (601.1 yards per game) and scoring (55.6 points per game).
"To me, it's kind of like high school again," Shelley said.
The junior has caught 25 passes for 457 yards and six touchdowns, and he's among the reasons why the 19th-ranked Golden Hurricane (8-0) is off to one of its best starts in school history heading into Saturday's 1 p.m. game at Arkansas.
"At first, I didn't know if ol' Slick was going to make it (at Tulsa) because we're pretty set on how we go about doing things," Graham said. "He has been the biggest turnaround we've had on our team in him buying in, not on the football field, but just how we do things and the discipline and structure."
It was only a few years ago, though, that Shelley was just another highly touted wide receiver lost in the shuffle at Tennessee.
He decided to sign with the Volunteers in 2005 in part because of their tendency to use three and four wide receivers at a time. But a slew of injuries sidelined him, and he redshirted his freshman season after falling behind in practice.
"That's kind of what happened, the injuries primarily. But there was a number of good players here and it didn't look like playing time was something that was going to happen a whole lot for him," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.
"But boy, he was a great guy and had a great attitude and I'm glad it's working out for him (at Tulsa)."
Even as other wide receivers blew past him for playing time, Shelley admits his decision to leave Tennesse wasn't an easy one.
He sat down with Fulmer, spoke with his family and talked to his former coaches at Fort Smith Southside about transferring to another school.
"To me, the decision to leave Tennessee was harder than when I was trying to pick a school, getting recruited (out of high school)," Shelley said. "I felt it took me about two weeks just to decide that I wanted to leave, just listening to what everyone else said."
Tulsa co-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn knew all about Shelley's great hands and ability to create separation and make big catches. And Shelley was well aware of Malzahn's no-huddle, hurry-up offense.
As Springdale High's coach in 2002, Malzahn watched as Shelley caught a 34-yard touchdown pass as a sophomore to help lead Fort Smith Southside to a 17-10 win over the Bulldogs in that year's state championship game.
Shelley had another big performance against Springdale the following season. So Malzahn had no problem selling Graham on the idea of Shelley transferring to Tulsa.
"Well, of course, I was real familiar with him from high school. He actually caught the ball to beat us in the state championship when I was at Springdale in ‘02," Malzahn said. "And then, of course, the next year, the junior year, I think he caught three touchdowns and had about 200 yards receiving (against us).
"So I'm just glad he's on our team now."
Livin' On Tulsa Time
Wide receiver Slick Shelley, a Fort Smith native, is among eight Arkansans on Tulsa's roster. The group will make its return to the Natural State when Arkansas hosts No. 19 Tulsa in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Coincidentally, the game comes during Arkansas' Homecoming weekend. Here is how those Arkansans have fared for Tulsa this season:
Name Pos. Hometown Production
Charles Clay FB Little Rock 346 yards rushing and receiving, 7 TDs.
Genesis Cole DB Little Rock Hasn't played.
Phillip Dokes TE Little Rock Hasn't played.
Jared Grigg OT Hindsville Hasn't played.
Cody Lambert DB Warren Hasn't played.
Victor Pongonis FB Springdale Often plays on short-yardage.
Slick Shelley WR Fort Smith 25 catches for 457 yards and 6 TDs.
A.J. Whitmore WR Nashville 406 yards rushing and receiving, 7 TDs.
Shelley Looking Slick For Tulsa
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