With Mahomes-like flashes, BYU star QB Zach Wilson turning heads at next level

Pete Thamel
·14 min read

Zach Wilson grew up going to Utah games with his father, Mike, a former Utes defensive lineman and mom, Lisa, whose family ties to the Utes stretch back generations. The Wilsons sat in Section 36, Row 2 near midfield at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The tickets were on the aisle, and the family sat across from the families of the Utah coaching staff in Section 37, Row 1.

Mike Wilson’s position coach at Utah in 1994 was Kyle Whittingham, who is entering his 16th season as Utah’s head coach. Starting at age 7, Zach Wilson went to Utah football camp every summer, posing for a picture with Whittingham.

The story of BYU’s junior quarterback emerging as one of the unlikeliest faces of college football this season starts in an improbable place — the second row of the stadium of its eternal and bitter rival. “BYU was the last place I wanted to go,” Zach Wilson said.

The fickle fate of recruiting swayed Zach Wilson to counter family allegiances and childhood devotions to play quarterback at BYU, as Utah never mustered a scholarship offer.

Just three years later, Wilson’s shock of blond hair, Pacific blue eyes and baby face are suddenly alongside the familiar snapshots of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Alabama’s Jaylen Waddle on the way-too-early Heisman Trophy graphics. Wilson’s latest scintillating performance — torching Houston for 400 yards — has continued his remarkable ascent.

Along the way, Wilson has flashed an unmatched verve that’s allowed him to emerge as one of the season’s most compelling players. He’s sashayed into the spotlight with no-look throws from the Mahomes playbook, improvisational artistry from the Manziel archives and sneaky athleticism like Alex Smith when the former No. 1 pick played for the Utes. (Sadly, Wilson admits being too young to remember watching Smith.)

BYU Cougars QB Zach Wilson celebrates after a game against the Houston Cougars on Oct. 16, 2020. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)
BYU Cougars QB Zach Wilson celebrates after a game against the Houston Cougars on Oct. 16, 2020. (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

With No. 12 BYU at its highest ranking in more than a decade, Wilson leads the country in completion percentage (78.7), and, perhaps most important, he has awakened the ghosts of BYU’s pass-happy pedigree fostered under legendary coach LaVell Edwards. He’s thrown for 1,641 yards and resurrected BYU’s wide-open, field-stretching identity.

Wilson jokes that after eclipsing 5,000 career passing yards earlier this season, at most schools he’d be close to the all-time passing mark. At BYU, his 5,601 career yards rank him No. 14, far behind legends like Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer. And also behind Robbie Bosco, Steve Sarkisian and Taysom Hill.

“For us, it’s important,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said of the historical tie to the pass game. “That’s what we all grew up knowing BYU to be.”

At 5-0 with the nation’s No. 6 offense (541.0 ypg), Wilson has escaped from the second row of BYU’s rival stadium to simultaneously channel the program’s decadent offensive lineage and leave the nation watching how far these Cougars can soar.

Zach Wilson’s ‘different’ childhood

Zach Wilson didn’t live a childhood of bike rides, video games and aimlessly frolicking in the neighborhood. He wanted to be a Division I basketball player, and his father, Mike Wilson, did everything he could to help him reach that goal.

One year, Zach Wilson played 120 basketball games. There were Monday leagues and Wednesday leagues and Saturdays occasionally jammed with four contests. He and his father hopscotched the country to attend different tournaments and, of course, still work on quarterback skills. “I felt like I had a different childhood than all my friends,” Zach Wilson said.

Mike Wilson is an entrepreneur who owns gas stations and other businesses in the Salt Lake City area. That allowed him to coach Zach in football and basketball growing up, and the pressure he placed on his son, one of six kids, wasn’t always appreciated in real time. “Sometimes I forgot you have to sit back and let him be a kid,” Mike Wilson said.

The laser focus on basketball shifted to the quarterback track Zach Wilson’s sophomore year of high school. And that meant an unusual recruiting journey that included national attention but little interest from the two local powers, Utah and BYU, that are within 30 miles of his home outside Salt Lake City.

The summer after Zach’s sophomore year, he won the quarterback MVP at BYU’s football camp. But the school didn’t show much recruiting interest, as then-coordinator Ty Detmer ended up getting a commitment from his nephew, Zadock Dinkelmann, in that class. (Dinkelmann is known in recruiting circles for committing to LSU as an eighth-grader back in 2014.)

Utah’s interest in Wilson never materialized after it got an early commitment from four-star Jack Tuttle, the Rivals.com No. 5 overall quarterback. He ranked higher than any commitment at that position in school history and even turned down an offer from USC.

With little interest or opportunity locally, Wilson hit the camp circuit to find suitors. A stellar performance at Boise State led to his commitment in June 2017, and the family celebrated by flying a Broncos flag from their house in Draper, south of Salt Lake City.

When BYU’s regular season ended in 2017, Sitake ended up jettisoning one legendary BYU quarterback to pave the way for recruiting another.

After letting go of coordinator Detmer, who’d won the Heisman Trophy there in 1990, Sitake started an intensive personal recruitment of Wilson that’s rare for a head coach. (Part because of his interest and part because he’d yet to hire an offensive staff.) “I want to offer Zach,” Mike Wilson recalled Sitake telling him in their initial call. “I should have a long time ago, and I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

While Mike Wilson played for the Utes himself, his wife Lisa’s ties there may be deeper. Her brother, Jet Blue founder David Neeleman, is a major Utah donor who helped fund the lacrosse program there. Zach’s grandparents, Gary and Rose Neeleman, graduated from Utah.

When Mike Wilson told Lisa that Zach got a BYU offer, she said, “Heck no! It’s too late!” She may not have said heck.

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, right, runs past Houston safety JoVanni Stewart during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, right, runs past Houston safety JoVanni Stewart during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Wilson took an unofficial visit to Provo, and Sitake personally showed the family around campus for five hours. Other schools were circling — Iowa offered on the drive to BYU. Syracuse, Baylor and Minnesota all made late charges as well.

Wilson decommitted from Boise State in December 2017 to explore his options, including an official visit to Iowa. As Mike was packing the night before, Iowa quarterback coach Ken O’Keefe called and said another West Coast prospect, Spencer Petras, had called and just committed. There was no need to go to Iowa City.

So Mike Wilson called Sitake at around 11 p.m. on a Thursday and told him that Zach wasn’t visiting Iowa and wanted to take an official visit to BYU. “You mean like tomorrow?” he recalled Sitake saying. “We’ll make it work.”

While Wilson visited Provo, both Cal and Oregon State called with offers. The Oregon State offer came while they were sitting with Sitake at dinner.

Petras will start the first game of his career for Iowa this weekend. Tuttle transferred to Indiana. Dinkelmann ended up at Texas A&M Kingsville. BYU, meanwhile, cashed in on the quarterback roulette.

“I don’t know if he’d have committed to BYU if Spencer Petras hadn’t decided to go to Iowa at the last second,” Mike Wilson said. “Going to BYU that [official] weekend, honestly, that’s what sealed the deal.

The tug of home, including just a 30-mile drive for his mom’s beef stroganoff Sunday dinners, played a big role. As does seeing his dad, who pushed him to a place where he’s thrived and appreciated the journey. “At the time, I didn’t love it,” Zach Wilson said. “I wished I could have had more of a childhood. Now I’m so grateful for that.”

Shades of Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes

Skip Holtz recalls walking off the field after BYU’s 45-14 victory over his Louisiana Tech team in early October and experiencing a familiar uncomfortable feeling. He watched Zach Wilson 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.

Holtz recalled playing Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech and Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, and walking off the field with the same feeling he had playing Wilson: “He’s the difference.”

Wilson finished that game 24-for-26 with 325 passing yards, and Holtz stressed that those weren’t stats inflated by bubble screens and check downs. BYU has consistently revived the soul of Edwards’ old pass game, as BYU pushes the ball downfield enough to rank No. 2 nationally with a jaw-dropping 12.1 yards per attempt. “He threw a beautiful ball, just time and time again,” Holtz said. “It wasn’t like, ‘That was a great throw.’ He threw 10 of them in our game and didn’t miss any.”

Wilson has 12 touchdown passes this year, just one interception and six rushing touchdowns. He’s completing 78.7% of his passes, which puts him on pace to break Steve Young’s 37-year-old BYU completion percentage record (71.3). He’s also ahead of Colt McCoy’s single-season NCAA record of 76.7% in 2008.

Against Houston on Friday, BYU’s most formidable opponent this season, he completed 25 of 35 passes for 400 yards and four touchdowns. Along the way, coaches have marveled at how easy he makes it look.

“He reminded me of Jared Goff in how effortlessly he throws the ball,” said UTSA coach Jeff Traylor. “It’s a smooth throw. He’s the guy on the pitcher’s mound throwing 92 and it looks like an 80 mph changeup. He’s the golfer who swings effortlessly and smashes his drive.”

As Wilson’s promising freshman year — including going 18-for-18 in a Potato Bowl win over Western Michigan — gave way to his up-and-down sophomore season (11 TDs, 9 INTs), a few factors aided Wilson’s leap to the sport’s elite this season.

Aaron Roderick, BYU’s co-offensive coordinator, is the person primarily responsible for Wilson’s development. He’s done so by addressing Wilson’s weaknesses while nurturing his natural flair. “I feel like Coach Roderick has done a great job finding me that balance between freelancing and making plays out of nothing and doing what the offense needs you to do,” Wilson said.

For Wilson, in this third year starting, finding the easy play has coincided with an offense that’s grown up around him. BYU’s maulers on the offensive line brought 120 starts into the season, and Wilson has operated with an experienced crew of receivers. Junior Gunner Romney is top 10 nationally with an average of 21.71 yards per catch and junior Dax Milne is No. 5 nationally with 550 receiving yards.

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson throws a pass against Troy during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson throws a pass against Troy during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

They’ve been so productive on offense — BYU ranks No. 6 in scoring offense (43.6 ppg), albeit against a flimsy schedule — that it’s easy to forget the program’s best NFL prospect entering the year, tight end Matt Bushman, is out for the season after suffering a freak leg injury during camp. “I can’t imagine how much of a better team we’d be with him,” Wilson said. “I wish we had him.”

To showcase Wilson’s growth, Roderick recalls a play in BYU’s bowl loss to Hawaii last season where his style veered from creative to cavalier. In the third quarter, with the game tied at 31, Wilson attempted to run the ball in from the 5-yard line. He went airborne in an attempt to leap across the goal line, got helicoptered with a crushing blow from a defender and fumbled into the end zone. Hawaii recovered and won, 38-34.

In a similar situation this year against Louisiana Tech, Roderick noted that Wilson resisted the temptation of holding the ball out toward the goal line and kept it tucked into his body. “Maturity has taught him not to be as greedy as he was when he was younger,” Roderick said.

Wilson has evolved as passer, with flourishes that have intrigued the NFL, especially after a shoulder injury limited his arm strength last season. Roderick points out how Wilson threw two no-look passes against UTSA, zipping a 16-yard dig while staring at a linebacker and then moved another linebacker with his eyes to complete a 10-yard shovel pass.

“His best talent is his ability to understand when to throw the ball with trajectory,” Roderick said. “And when to throw a back shoulder, hard or soft. When to rope it. When to float it. He understands space and the relationship defenses have on the field.”

His seamless ability to change arm angles is one of the things that has NFL scouts intrigued. One scout said Wilson’s sudden increase in production has given him a rise similar to that of Washington State’s Gardner Minshew and LSU’s Joe Burrow in recent years. In all likelihood, Wilson’s ascent could land him on the cusp of the first round this season.

Wilson is listed at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, but is considered shorter. One scout said he was a “more athletic” Minshew and sees him as a high-end NFL backup. He’d like to see him against better competition, which is hard because Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Missouri and Stanford all disappeared off BYU’s schedule because of COVID-19.

Wilson said that while he’s talking to a few “big agencies” about the NFL draft next year — common for a player of his stature — he realizes the attention can leave as quickly as it arrived.

If he returns in 2021 to face a more daunting schedule — with USC, Arizona State and a home date with Utah among the seven Power Five games — Wilson would be in the mix with UNC’s Sam Howell and USC’s Kedon Slovis for the top quarterback. (Others, inevitably, will emerge in that conversation.)

“He’s got poise under pressure, accuracy and can throw from different platforms,” the NFL scout said. “He has no panic, some moxie and he’s tough. He can really do things with his feet, that’s the stuff you can’t teach. He can play himself higher than what I see him as.”

For Holtz, he left the field with a distinct vision of Wilson’s future: “He’ll definitely play in the NFL.”

Road trips to SoCal

While in Southern California this summer, Wilson’s dedication to working out during quarantine included jumping an eight-foot fence with BYU tight end Isaac Rex, Oklahoma State transfer quarterback Brendan Costello and a few others to get in a throwing session at San Juan Hills High School. To scale the fence, they wedged wooden planks at the corner to create a makeshift ladder.

And that’s the perfect metaphor for Wilson, who sees opportunity where others see obstacles. Even in a pandemic, Wilson made sure to maximize the time away from his teammates. He took so many 10-hour drives from Utah to Southern California to work out that he developed routines of where to buy cheap gas (Sam’s Club), unhealthy food (Raising Cane’s) and healthier food (El Pollo Loco) along the way.

Along with working out with teammates in Southern California, Wilson trained with John Beck, a private quarterback tutor with the prestigious 3DQB who starred at BYU. (Yes, his 11,021 passing yards make him one of many those quarterbacks annoyingly ahead of Wilson on BYU’s all-time list. But he’s still only No. 3.)

Beck trains many high-profile NFL quarterbacks and says that Wilson “has one of the best arms in college football.” While that won’t translate to elite arm strength in the NFL — like the level of Mahomes or Josh Allen — there are plenty of intangibles that will supplement his skill set for smooth NFL translation.

“He just soaks in football all of the time,” Beck said. “When you line them up, it’s a lot of things that you look for — he’s a competitor, has passion, he’s fiery and he has a way to make those flashy plays.”

The flash has returned to BYU, and now the whole country is watching just how high Wilson and the Cougars can climb.

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