AJ Derby could virtually have played any position he wanted to coming out of high school..

Derby excelled as a high shcool athlete and projected as a safety, linebacker, tight end or quarterback at the next level. At his size, he was pretty much built do anything on the football field. In the end, Derby’s desire to play quarterback won out.

He had success at that position, leading his high school team to a state championship as a senior, while compiling nearly 2,600 yards and 23 touchdowns. He signed with Iowa out of high school, preparing to redshirt his freshman season and then compete for the starting job. In the end, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz saw Derby better suited as a linebacker instead of quarterback, prompting the Iowa City native to transfer to Coffeyville Community College.

Once he arrived in Fayetteville in 2013, Derby was able to see some time at backup quarterback, thanks to his experience and a shoulder injury sustained to Brandon Allen. It wasn’t a terrible experience as Derby finished the year 19-of-36 passing for 178 yards and one touchdown.

However, with Allen returning in 2014, fully healthy and ready to start again, the time came for Derby to make a decision. Would he stay at quarterback to backup Allen or potentially give up the position he had played for years and contribute for the team elsewhere?

Initially, Derby was reluctant to make a switch. However, as a senior, Derby realized the importance of being a leader for this year’s squad.

“I was all-in at quarterback,” Derby said during spring practice. “But I wanted to be a leader on this team, and I think the best way for me to be a leader is to be on the field, so I’m all-in on this and I want to help this team win.”

The Hogs didn’t win their first game of 2014, falling to Auburn 45-21 on the road, but Derby’s first game experience at tight end should leave fans optimistic that the position switch will pay off for Derby and the Hogs.

He hauled in four receptions for 40 yards and a touchdown, but all in all, Derby looked like he belonged out on the field as a tight end. Head coach Bret Bielema, who was at the forefront of Derby switching to tight end, was encouraged by his performance against the defending SEC Champions.

“You look at a guy like AJ Derby, who actually never played the tight end position in college, let alone any other level, I’m sure. That was pretty big,” Bielema said during his weekly press conference. “Derb caught the ball really, really well.”

Derby showed good instincts on Saturday, getting open in coverage and making some big plays, including an 18-yard touchdown reception to bring the Hogs within seven points in the second quarter. Derby’s mental awareness and quarterback experience are playing huge factors in his smooth transition to tight end and it showed last Saturday.

“I think I saw things that if I had been a tight end the whole time, I wouldn’t have seen,” Derby said, reflecting on the Auburn game. “I felt good about that, knowing everything from a quarterback standpoint.”

“I’ve never doubted AJ,” Allen said this week. “I knew he’d be a great tight end as soon as he moved over. He thinks like a quarterback, which is good for me. When he’s out there, we’re on the same page. It makes it easy.”

The 18-yard touchdown reception for Derby would have fooled most people into thinking this wasn’t his first game at a brand-new position. Derby attacked the middle of the field, beating his defender, all while leaping up to make an athletic catch look very easy in the endzone. If he looked comfortable out on the field, that’s because he was.

“I feel like I’ve been playing [tight end] for a while. It didn’t feel like my first game. It felt good and it felt like I’m getting better every day,” Derby said.

With Derby’s size, he’s able to do just more than receiving. Although he’s still very raw at the position, his 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame allows him to have good leverage against opposing defensive linemen and linebackers. He’s able to bring the whole package to the tight end position.

“I felt good about blocking. I’m continuing to work, to get leverage and to work on getting my hands fit,” Derby said about his progression at blocking.

Rarely do position changes, especially this late in someone’s career, pay off. However, if the first game is of any indication, it looks like Bielema will have two viable threats at tight end in Derby and freshman All-SEC tight end Hunter Henry. Bielema’s two tight-end sets will allow Derby a lot of opportunities to make plays over the course of the season and his head coach is expecting big things from Derby this year.

“AJ Derby, in my opinion, may be one of the surprises of our football team, but one of the best stories in the SEC this year,” Bielema said at SEC Media Days. “I think he’s shown us in practice what he can be is truly exceptional.”

In addition to his coach’s support, Derby has garnered the same support and high expectations from his teammates as a tight end.

“I feel like AJ Derby is going to be one of those stores where you say, ‘He was just a backup quarterback, and now he’s been in the [NFL] at tight end for 10 years. It’s just so natural to him,” running back Jonathan Williams said.

So far, so good for the former quarterback.