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Memories Covering Zach Wilson During His BYU Football Career

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson poses for a photo at the Indoor Training Facility at BYU in Provo on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – Zach Wilson arrived at BYU three years ago, and in that short time with the Cougars, he left an impact that few in program history can replicate.

I had the chance to cover Zach Wilson’s entire BYU career from start to finish. As someone who follows recruiting closely, I also knew about Wilson when he was a prep standout at Corner Canyon High School. Now that Wilson is getting ready to begin his professional career, I wanted to take the time to look back on Wilson’s career from a full-time media member’s perspective.

Zach Wilson as a recruit

Wilson was once the MVP of the BYU Football Camp, yet surprisingly was not getting any recruiting attention from BYU. I was working at another radio station at the time. I thought to myself, why isn’t BYU recruiting this guy?

 

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I remember thinking Wilson had the ability to compete right away for playing time as a true freshman watching how he played. He committed to BYU over offers Cal, Boise State, Oregon State, Iowa, and others. Seeing him commit to BYU in front of his father’s Utah apparel in the basement of his home was a moment Cougar fans probably won’t forget. As it signaled, a rare legacy recruit for the Utes is going to BYU.

Potential was on display in Freshman season

Zach Wilson arrived at BYU during the winter semester in 2018. He joined a QB room that had nine quarterbacks. I remember watching Wilson in his first spring practice and coming away from that session thinking, Wilson was the best passing QB I’ve seen at BYU in practice since John Beck. And before that, Ben Olsen.

For Cougar fans, they were probably hoping Beck was going to be the outcome. Not Ben Olsen. But the foundation of skills was already there in Wilson, and it was far greater than the three-star rating he received during his recruitment.

Wilson stepped into a BYU program that had many QBs, but there were a lot of injuries in the QB room. Most notably to Tanner Mangum, who was recovering from an Achilles injury. Mangum wasn’t expected to put in any work during spring ball, but he did participate in some passing drills after a week of Wilson shining in his first handful of practices at BYU.

I drew a comparison to Baker Mayfield after seeing Wilson operate in the spring game leading many to quote tweet me, scoffing at the statement. But you could see the talent right away.

You knew Wilson was destined to make an impact as a freshman when the unwritten “O’Neill Chambers” rule was dropped for the budding star at QB. Chambers told ESPN’s Graham Watson in 2008 that he was upset with the lack of reps he had in camp for those that don’t remember. From there, newcomers and freshmen have never been allowed to talk in spring or fall camp before their first game is played.

Three weeks into his first spring season, Wilson was made available to the media. One of the only other individuals to have that happen was tight end Matt Bushman, who could also hear his name called this weekend. As he noted, seniors were already taking him under his wings. Something that will need to happen for him in the NFL.

Wilson became the youngest starting QB in BYU football history in a win over undefeated Hawaii in Provo. In a blowout loss to Utah State, the week prior, the final drives with Wilson provided a much-needed spark to a BYU offense that was lacking.

Wilson’s performance against rival Utah was an impressive display of quarterback play against a Utah team, who were the Pac-12 South Champions. BYU was a two-touchdown underdog, and Wilson led the Cougars to a 27-7 lead before Utah reeled off 28 unanswered to get the win.

Dylan Collie heaped praise on Wilson, saying he could become one of the best QBs in BYU football history. Wilson responded after a perfect Potato Bowl performance, “That’s cute.” The cuteness of the comment turned into fact as Wilson continued his climb.

Sophomore season: Facing Adversity

Wilson served as an advisor or “coach” in spring ball 2019 after having surgery on his shoulder. During the spring game, he spent a good length of time chatting with former BYU QB Max Hall who was in attendance.

Looking back on that fall camp, there wasn’t the same zip on the ball as was shown in his freshman season. But it was understandable after a long layoff. Everyone likely believed he would step in and pick up where he left off after the perfect performance. Adversity faced Wilson during the sophomore campaign.

Wilson and BYU laid an egg against Utah in 2019, after an off-season where the BYU-Utah game was the big talking point. Signs on the locker room doors read, “Beat Utah.” That game raised questions. A grinder of a game at Tennessee culminated in a classic connection from Wilson to Micah Simon for a memorable double-overtime win on Rocky Top.

After the game, Wilson spent a lot of time signing autographs for the large contingent of BYU fans cheering the team on in the postgame celebration.

Then a hand injury in a loss against Toledo threw another wrench in Wilson’s career at BYU. Up in the press box at Utah State, Zach Wilson was at the end of media row watching BYU’s Jaren Hall, and then Baylor Romney shred the Aggies defense. What was going through his mind at that moment? Two weeks later, he was back in his starting role again, still nowhere near 100 percent. Causing some in the fan base to question if he was the right guy for the job.

A disappointing loss to Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl kept that conversation open into the off-season. Even leading some fans to e-mail offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick asking A-Rod not to start Wilson.

Zach Wilson shines in Junior season

Entering the 2020 season, Wilson was fully recovered from the shoulder surgery and hand injury he battled through as a sophomore. He came into spring ball with extra weight and even more confidence in his personal growth as a quarterback.

In the media, we only had one week of in-person interviews before the pandemic tossed everything into the virtual world. Everything about Wilson throughout the 2020 season was in control. He knew where he wanted to be physically and mentally for the season. According to coaches, there was a quarterback debate, but everyone knew it was going to be Wilson’s job.

What was interesting to open the season was that Wilson wasn’t the big story after the week one win over Navy. He had a solid game, nothing spectacular. The dominance upfront and the ground attack of BYU won the night against a Navy team that didn’t tackle at all in fall camp.

Then, against Troy and LA Tech, the meteoric rise up the NFL draft boards began to occur. The throws, arm placement, and command of BYU’s offense was something that I had not seen from a BYU QB since John Beck or Max Hall during the Cougars glory years from 2006-2009.

After the win at Houston, I asked Wilson, what kind of statement did your team make with this win? “The statement we made is that we’re a big-time team,” Wilson replied. Everything grew from there.

The rise only climbed with a win at Boise State. In that game, BYU appeared destined to go to the College Football Playoff’s New Year’s Six bowl games. A Playoff Committee led by Gary Barta had other plans. It still doesn’t take away from the season that Wilson and BYU put out in 2020. The best AP Poll finish since 1996.

Throughout the rise of media attention, Wilson was always kind to give one-on-one interviews and tell his story. One thing that always stood out to me was his passion for the game of football. Chase your passion, and the money will follow. It doesn’t feel manufactured with Wilson; this is what he truly loves. That’s why he’s going to have a great opportunity for success in the NFL.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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