A generation of college football fans grew up knowing BYU as QB U.
Cougars quarterbacks consistently became first-round NFL draft picks and Heisman Trophy contenders in the 1970s, ‘80s and ’90s. Under innovative coach LaVell Edwards, BYU offenses helped lay the foundation for today’s pass-happy game.
For the first time in a long time, BYU has that kind of quarterback again. With the help of a former Cougars QB, Zach Wilson is conjuring up memories of Jim McMahon and Steve Young in Provo, Utah.
No. 14 BYU (4-0) takes its unbeaten record and sideline dance parties to Houston to face another group of Cougars on Friday. It will be the toughest test yet for BYU and Wilson, who grew up a short drive from the school but didn’t get a scholarship offer from the Cougars until the 11th hour of his recruitment.
Being overlooked did nothing to break Wilson’s confidence. It probably added to his swagger and self-assured style.
“I had a lot to prove and at the same time, no one expected anything of me. So when I came in it was easy to take a risk.” Wilson said. “I wasn’t a huge recruit coming into BYU. Even with all the other offers I had, it wasn’t like I was some crazy four- or five-star guy and BYU was like super-happy to have me. I was just an average Joe coming in.”
Wilson’s recruitment is in some ways an indictment of the QB industrial complex that has taken over quarterback development.
Players aspiring to be the next Pat Mahomes or Baker Mayfield often enter the pipeline of personal trainers and quarterback gurus by middle school. They hit the camp circuits and are being nationally ranked in junior high.
Wilson was late to immerse himself in that world. His personal coach was his father, Mike Wilson, a former defensive lineman for the University of Utah. There was always a ball in the Wilson family car and a father-son throwing session could break out anywhere.
“My wife would go into the grocery store and we’d stand outside and play catch in the parking lot while she’s shopping,” Wilson said.
“It’s always been highly competitive,” the elder Wilson added. “We play this target game where he holds his hand in a spot. If I hit it I get a point. I do the same for him. It’s first to 10, and it always heated on who’s cheating.”
It’s not that Zach Wilson wasn’t on the radar of coaches at Utah and BYU. It was just that neither school wanted him.
At least not until after the 2017 season. BYU coach Kalani Sitake overhauled his offensive staff, including letting go of offensive coordinator and BYU Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.
The staff turnover left BYU without a quarterback committed to the 2018 class.
Scrambling, Sitake targeted Wilson, who had been verbally committed to Boise State.
“It was just a little late, but it’s never too late,” Sitake said. “I mean, that’s how I got my wife. You just never know unless you take a shot and try.”
Wilson was swayed by opportunity and history. BYU had not signed a quarterback in the 2017 class and had struggled at the position that season. The job was going to be wide open in 2018.
It has been a while since a BYU quarterback was taken high in the NFL draft, but Sitake played for the Hall of Famer Edwards in the mid-1990s and wanted BYU to have an offensive identity that harkened back to its heritage.
During the late 1970s and into the ’80s, college football was largely grounded. But not in Provo.
Edwards opened it up and turned quarterbacks into stars. Marc Wilson (1980) and McMahon (1982) were taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Young went first overall in the 1984 supplemental draft after signing a $43 million contract with the USFL’s Los Angeles Express.
The Cougars won a national championship behind Robbie Bosco in 1984 and Detmer won the Heisman in 1990.
Another former BYU quarterback has been instrumental in Zach Wilson’s development.
John Beck played for the Cougars post-Edwards and was taken in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins. He is now a quarterback trainer at 3DQB based in Southern California.
Wilson began working with Beck after his first spring practice with BYU in 2018. It was illuminating.
“It was a whole bunch of learning and tons of stuff I’d never done before as far as just like, footwork, how your body is supposed to have your weight distributed,” Wilson said.
Simplified, Wilson’s throwing mechanics made him too reliant on arm strength. The rest of his body would be out ahead of his arm and it hurt his accuracy.
Beck said it was easy to see Wilson was loaded with untapped potential.
“You could see this athleticism. You could see his arm strength. You could see this quick twitch ability. You could see these things, but they weren’t totally synced up,” Beck said.
Wilson has the physical tools to effectively make what coaches call off-platform throws, to deliver a strong and accurate pass when circumstances don’t allow for textbook mechanics. It’s one of the traits that makes NFL stars Aaron Rodgers, Pat Mahomes and Russell Wilson so great, and the reason why the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Zach Wilson is drawing increased interest from NFL scouts.
After starting as a freshman, Wilson missed much of last season with injuries.
Mike Wilson said he began this season thinking about how fortunate it was that his son potentially had three years left at BYU, possibly taking advantage of the NCAA’s decision to give all fall sport athletes an extra year to make up for this odd season in a pandemic.
Now, Mike Wilson is getting peppered with calls from agents. They see Zach Wilson as a potential first-round pick in a 2021 draft that seems to have a clear top three quarterback prospects in Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance.
Zach Wilson has blended his swashbuckling style with surgical precision this season. He has completed 81% of his passes, thrown just one interception and accounted for 14 touchdowns.
Wilson said he respects BYU’s quarterback history and wants to add to it.
“It wasn’t my mentality to say I want to be like those guys,” he said. “It’s like I want to leave a legacy here at BYU. I want people to remember what this team had. That were special.”
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