Friday, April 9th, 2021

Wilson, QB

Simon Clancy

Lead Feature Writer

Wilson, QB

Simon Clancy College Football

This article originally appeared in Issue LVII of Gridiron magazine, back in 2020 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE



The first time BYU quarterback Zach Wilson registered on the national consciousness was at the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl when his Cougars throttled Western Michigan 49-18. A lopsided bowl game in mid-December barely raises an eyebrow but, on this day, the blonde-haired true freshman – already the youngest starting passer in school history – pitched the perfect game, going 18 of 18 for 317 yards and four scores and breaking an FBS record for most passes without an incompletion. That he did it in the stadium of the school he de-committed from a year or so earlier, Boise State, was not lost on Broncos fans.

The second time was when he stepped out on the opening night of BYU’s 2020 season and sunk Navy 55-3. It set in motion an unlikely Heisman campaign which gathers pace with every game, putting him firmly on the NFL’s radar and firing the Cougars to 12th in the latest AP poll, their highest ranking since 2009. Not only that, Wilson completed nearly 79 per cent of his passes across his first five games and was on course obliterate the school record set by Steve Young in 1983 (71.3 per cent). He also had 12.1 yards per completion – a full yard more than the previous mark set in 1989 by Ty Detmer, who won BYU’s only Heisman 30 years ago. 

Much like his position in the college football landscape, Wilson’s journey to the top has been an unusual one. He comes from a family of lawyers, doctors, and entrepreneurs. His uncle David invented the electronic airline ticket and came up with the idea for in-flight entertainment, and he’s the product of a father who survived a difficult childhood and vowed to give his children the attention he never knew. To that end, Mike Wilson, who was a defensive lineman at Utah was Zach’s private quarterback coach from grade school through high school, gleaning information from YouTube videos in a bid to push his son to greatness. It meant that when Zach got to high school, he was way ahead of the curve. “First time I ever saw him I knew he was different,” Eric Kjar – Wilson’s high school head coach with the Corner Canyon Chargers – tells Gridiron. “Mike had done great work with him and it showed. He was so far advanced for someone so young: the drop, the footwork, the way he read defenses, his throwing motion, the way he turned his hips to drive the ball down the field. It was pretty evident from day one that he was on a very different path to most kids his age.” 

Kjar is well known on Utah’s prep circuit as something of a quarterback whisperer and the orchestrator of some of the most prolific offenses in state history. Since taking the reins at Corner Canyon High, he has overseen three straight undefeated seasons and two state championships, with their last loss coming in November 2017. When he speaks to Gridiron, he is game planning for the divisional round of the playoffs after another 10-0 campaign. “Zach’s a prodigy, but he wasn’t just handed it,” he says from his office a short drive down I-15 from the BYU campus. “He’s extremely hard-working and he earned everything because of that dedication. Plus, he’s super competitive. He might look like the boy next door but there’s a will to excel that only the great ones have.”
 


“He’s very dedicated with his tape study, and he’ll spend hours watching quarterbacks the way other kids play video games.”


 
Together Kjar and Wilson would feed their obsession for competition and game planning by watching hours of tape. The 41-year-old calls Wilson “a film junkie” and says their infatuation takes over at the most inopportune moments. “I went to a family barbecue at his house and he was there with his girlfriend, hanging out. When I got there he grabs me and tells me that he wants to show me this play he’s seen. And his girlfriend gives him a look as if to say, ‘Don’t you dare’. Anyway, three hours later, we’re still watching film and she comes back and sees us and is like, ‘What the heck is wrong with you two?!’ But he’s very dedicated with his tape study, and he’ll spend hours watching quarterbacks the way other kids play video games. He’s a huge Aaron Rodgers fan and really studies forensically how he plays the position.”

Truth is, there weren’t many video games in Zach Wilson’s childhood. His first love was basketball and he wanted to play Division 1 college hoops. “My parents pushed me so hard and I missed out on a lot of the things that you’d say were ‘normal’,” says Wilson. “But then, all of a sudden, I realised I love this. This is my thing. And it made me understand that sometimes, if you don’t get pushed to the edge, you won’t find it, you won’t find what your gift was. Football is my gift.”

At Corner Canyon, it was Eric Kjar’s job to nurture that gift, in part through a love of the game, but also because the two share a different bond: physical adversity. In 2010, Kjar was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Seven years later, he’d watch as his young quarterback struggled with an undiagnosed issue of his own. “He earned pretty good grades but I used to teach him in an online learning class and he’d lose focus a tonne, and quickly,” Kjar says. “School was hard for him. I mean he tried, but you could see him struggle.” Wilson, who’d always suspected he might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because of his family history – more than half of his maternal uncles, aunts and grandparents have ADHD – submitted himself for a test for the disorder and was positive. “We talk a lot about overcoming adversity,” says Kjar. “He’s worked through a lot of it, but football really helps him control it. It gives his mind focus because he loves it so much and the ADHD really has no affect.”

One thing that did affect Wilson was the recruiting process. What started slowly then became something of a runaway train as he piled up the yards through the air and on the ground. After early offers from Utah State and Boise State, word spread through the Midwest and beyond about an accurate, athletic, strong-armed passer from the Salt Lake Valley. Soon Kirk Ferentz and Iowa were in town, followed by Syracuse and Dino Babers, and P.J. Fleck of Minnesota. But Wilson disappointed them all by committing to Boise State less than 24 hours after receiving an offer. “It’s a school I’ve always wanted to play for,” he told reporters at the time. “When I got an offer, I knew that was a place I wanted to play and I decided to commit early. It’s a perfect fit for me.”
 


“Zach’s situation reminds me of Justin Herbert; small-town kid who loved hanging out with his family, who stayed close by when he went to Oregon and was really comfortable in that atmosphere created for him.”


 
So, what went wrong? “We talked a lot about that,” Kjar admits. “I mean, I still have a Boise State shirt that he gave me because we all thought he was going there. And his family garage is still filled with Bronco gear! It was a tough time because BYU really didn’t show much interest. But when they finally came in for him, I think the opportunity to play close to home and share that collegiate experience with a family that had invested so much in him was too much to pass up.”

Ironically, it had been the firing of Detmer – the last BYU quarterback to win the Heisman – as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator that had been the catalyst. Head coach Kalani Sitake called Mike Wilson to see if there was any chance his son would change his decision. “I was hard core, 100 per cent Boise State,” says Wilson Junior. “No desire in my mind for anything else. I loved the offense and I really loved the coaches. But sometimes life presents opportunities that need to be considered, especially when it impacts my family, which is number one on my priority list.”

Kjar, who acted as an advisor during the process, says that he sees a lot of similarities between Wilson and a recent first-round draft choice in terms of priorities and the importance of family when it comes to big decisions. “Zach’s situation reminds me of Justin Herbert; small-town kid who loved hanging out with his family, who stayed close by when he went to Oregon and was really comfortable in that atmosphere created for him. That’s the same as Zach. He loves that he’s doing what he’s doing for a local school, just as Justin did up in Corvallis.” And Wilson concurs. “Happiness for me is being able to play in front of my family, coming out the tunnel and seeing my uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. That’s really why I chose BYU.”
 


“When Wilson rolled right down by five in the fourth quarter at Houston and casually flipped an underhand pass to his fullback for the go-ahead score – reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes’ toss to Anthony Sherman against Baltimore in Week 3 – the Super Bowl LIV MVP tweeted a picture of the play with the words: “Well done!”.”


 
Three years later it is clear Wilson made the right decision, awakening the ghosts of BYU’s pass-happy history and putting the Cougars back on the map, although it wasn’t always plain sailing. After the perfect end to his freshman season, expectations were through the roof for year two, but a broken thumb led many to believe he might lose the starting job in 2020. It led one opposing coach to tell Athlon’s pre-season magazine that Wilson, “might not be the best option” because he “kind of plateaued.” Driven on by those words, Wilson spent the summer going back and forth to California to work out with the former BYU passer John Beck, who works with the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Dak Prescott. “You’ve got the stones, the jar and the sand, and if you put all the sand into the jar then there’s no room for the stones,” says Beck from his office on the campus of 3DQB where he works as a motion mechanics instructor. “But if you put the stones in first, then you can put the sand in and they all fit. When I look at Zach, I see a guy who knows the value of those stones. His arm right now is the strongest I’ve seen it. His ability to throw from some of the positions we’ve put him in over these last couple of months has improved a lot. Zach’s ability to make some of the hard throws easier, and make them more consistently, is a lot better.”

That was obvious in the first five games of 2020 as he made ‘wow’ throws on almost every drive. And America is taking notice. When Wilson rolled right down by five in the fourth quarter at Houston and casually flipped an underhand pass to his fullback for the go-ahead score – reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes’ toss to Anthony Sherman against Baltimore in Week 3 – the Super Bowl LIV MVP tweeted a picture of the play with the words: “Well done!” Wilson’s performances have also pushed him into the first-round conversation should he choose to declare for the NFL Draft, whilst opposing coaches believe he has what it takes to be a star at the next level. “You watch him complete passes from odd arm angles, rifle balls across the hashes and spiral frozen ropes on comeback routes to the wide side of the field and it makes you take notice,” says Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz. “I coached against Mahomes at Texas Tech and I walked off the field against BYU with the same feeling I had when I played Pat. He’s the difference.”

BYU have started 5-0 just five times previously in school history: 1979, 1981, 1984 – when they won a national championship – 2001 and 2008. Wilson would love to repeat what Robbie Bosco did 36 years ago and lead the Cougars to the promised land. And he’d also like to go two steps further than Bosco did when finishing third in the Heisman voting and bring the famous old trophy back to Provo.  But can he? 

“Oh yeah, he can,” says Kjar. “He has the ability and the team around him, and really this season isn’t a surprise to me at all. Zach’s probably the most talented player I’ve ever been around. I’ve never coached at the NFL level but he has what it takes. He’s just different to every other kid. So yeah, he has a real shot to win it.” 



This article originally appeared in Issue LVII of Gridiron magazine, back in 2020 – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE


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