Staley was born in Bountiful, Utah. He attended Tualatin High School in Tualatin, Oregon, and played high school football for the Tualatin Timberwolves. As a senior in 1999, Staley was named Gatorade Player of the Year and USA Today Player of the Year for the state of Oregon. He was also named Oregonian Player of the Year, earned All-State honors on offense and defense, and was conference Player of the Year for offense, defense, and special teams. He averaged over 300 yards per game during Tualatin's four-game playoff run. Staley was listed as a Blue Chip Top-100 player.
Staley attended Brigham Young University, and played for the BYU Cougars football team from 1999 to 2001. In three years at BYU, Staley established himself as one of the best running backs in school history, and posted the best single season of any BYU back in history. In his first game as a Cougar, Staley scored 3 touchdowns to lead BYU to a 34-13 victory over Colorado State in the first-ever Mountain West Conference (MWC) football game. Despite some nagging injuries that limited his playing time, he continued his impressive play, finishing the season with 92 rushes for 432 yards and 10 touchdowns, and added 26 receptions for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns. He led the MWC in scoring, averaging 9.8 points per game. For his efforts, Staley was named Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year, and Sporting News Third Team Freshman All-American.
As a sophomore in 2000, Staley started 10 games and led the team with 479 yards (on 130 carries) and scored 7 touchdowns. He added 28 receptions for 327 yards. In BYU's 10-7 victory over UNLV, Staley rushed for 167 yards and was named MWC Offensive Player of the Week. He also received awards from BYU's coaching staff for games against Air Force, UNLV, and Colorado State.
In 2001, Staley burst onto the national scene with a spectacular junior season. Under new head coach Gary Crowton, the Cougars started the season with a 12-0 record and led the NCAA in scoring (46.8 points per game) and total offense (542.9 yards per game). Staley became the main weapon in BYU's offensive blitzkrieg. Despite suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Mississippi State, he compiled some eye-popping statistics. In 11 games, he rushed for 1,596 yards and 24 touchdowns (both totals shattered school records). His rushing average (8.1 yards per carry) led the NCAA, and his 143.8 rushing yards per game ranked third nationally. Staley added 32 receptions for 334 yards and 4 touchdowns; he led the nation in total touchdowns (28) and scoring (15.5 points per game).
In recognition of his accomplishments, Staley received the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation's top running back. He was also named Touchdown Club of Columbus Running Back of the Year—The Jim Brown Award, and earned First-team All-American honors from the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, CNN/SI, Football News, Football Writers Association, the NFL Draft Report, and the Walter Camp Foundation (among others). In addition, Staley received numerous awards from the Mountain West Conference throughout the season, including MWC Offensive Player of the Year and First-team All-MWC honors. Although he had one very good season, he still would rank just outside of the top 100 college running backs of the past two decades.
Staley decided to forgo his senior season at BYU and entered the 2002 NFL Draft. However, because of his injury-prone past, Staley was not selected until the seventh round (214th overall) by the Detroit Lions. He participated in Lions' training camp as a rookie, but suffered a knee injury that required a season-ending surgery.
He attended training camp the following season but was waived on August 25, 2003.
- Doak Walker Award - 2001
- MWC Offensive Player of the Year