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Jewish QB Jake Retzlaff sees BYU as a welcomed shelter from the storm

BYU Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) warms up before the game against the Iowa State Cyclones at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
BYU Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) warms up before the game against the Iowa State Cyclones at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The war between Hamas and Israel hits differently for BYU’s Jake Retzlaff, especially as he watches the conflict being vehemently debated on college campuses in the United States. The fact that Retzlaff is Jewish and the signal caller at a predominantly Christian school keeps him under a spotlight that shines far beyond Provo.

“I’ve been so grateful for BYU to have this platform to allow me to be faith-oriented and allow me to grow in my faith.”

BYU quarterback Jake Retzlaff

“I’ll admit, sometimes I’d rather ‘just talk about ball.’ Other times, I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is definitely a big deal, especially in today’s political climate,’” Retzlaff told the “Y’s Guys” podcast about being a difference-maker in his faith. “There is not enough good news in the world, period. So, you might as well be some of it.”

Retzlaff started the last four games of the 2023 season and instantly became a role model for young people in and out of Judaism, and especially with his friends back home in Corona, California.

“That’s what I love about it is that it is good news that there is a Jewish starting quarterback at BYU. That’s good news because maybe some thought it was impossible,” Retzlaff said. “And, maybe some are thinking the Jews aren’t doing too well right now because, frankly, we are not, with Israel being in the state that it is constantly in — and even worse now, and the political climate all over campuses in America right now is unbelievable.”

The former top-ranked junior college quarterback came to Provo last year because the Cougars threw the football. He now sees BYU in a different light.

“I am so grateful to be at a place like BYU where they are nothing but supportive and it’s so awesome to be part of that, and be part of this institution,” he said. “I’ve been so grateful for BYU to have this platform to allow me to be faith-oriented and allow me to grow in my faith.”

Retzlaff adjusted quickly to a campus life that he didn’t expect.

“It’s so faith-oriented. Everybody is talking about it. It’s a part of class. I take religion classes where they pray before every class. We pray before every meeting,” Retzlaff said. “It’s so much easier to grow in your faith when you are around people of faith. It’s simple. Surround yourself with people of faith because you will become like them and that’s how it’s been. I’ve been able to grow in my faith as a Jew.”

Playing on the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) is something Retzlaff has had to come to terms with.

“I tell people my Sabbath is simply this, I get to go on the field and play in front of millions of people repping my faith as proudly as I possibly can,” he said. “I love being a beacon of Judaism in front of all those people.”

Seeking redemption

BYU lost all four games that Retzlaff started last year, including a 40-34 double-overtime defeat at No. 21 Oklahoma State on Thanksgiving weekend where the Cougars led 24-6 at halftime. The season-ending skid kept BYU out of the bowl season.

“I’ve been eager to get back on the field since the plane landed back in Provo,” Retzlaff said. “Everybody is telling me that ‘this summer is going to go by fast. I hope you are ready?’ Well, for me, it can’t come fast enough. We are going to carry that urgency through summer training and right into fall camp and here we go. I’m excited to get this going. I’m excited for what our team is going to put on the field this year.”

If there was an actual school of hard knocks, Retzlaff would already have his master’s degree. An injury to veteran quarterback Kedon Slovis against Texas meant the former Riverside City College star would make his Division I debut against four consecutive Power Four schools — a challenge no other BYU quarterback ever faced.

The Cougars were pounded by West Virginia (37-7) and Iowa State (45-13) but they responded with better efforts in defeats against No. 14 Oklahoma (31-24) and Oklahoma State.

“We showed them that ‘Oh, these guys are not just some Mormons from Mormon Town, these guys can ball,’” Retzlaff said. “It was so inspiring to the team and that’s why the last loss hurt so bad and it’s why we’ve had to sit through however many days it’s been and everybody’s talking about 4.5 wins.”

Las Vegas is projecting the Cougars’ win total this fall at 4.5 games, which is among the lowest in the Big 12.

“4.5 wins is the number one thing on our minds right now,” he said. “We know that it’s complete crap and we showed that the last two (games) and people still don’t believe it because of what we did the two (games) before.”

A year older, wiser

Retzlaff played all but one snap in high school and junior college out of the shotgun formation. His conversion to Aaron Roderick’s offense required moving under center. It also included understanding and executing a complicated playbook.

“The difference between last spring and this spring and why I’m so excited for this year is because last year I was trying to be a quarterback in this offense. This year, I am ‘me’ in this offense,” Retzlaff said. “Any quarterback in the country will know how much sense that makes.

“You feel like yourself. You are moving with your own movements. You are playing with a little swagger and more confidence. It makes all the difference in the world because you are like, ‘OK, I’m owning this. I’m owning the result of this game.’ And when you get receivers who are also doing that, you can make something happen.”

Retzlaff threw for 648 yards and three touchdowns last season. He also rushed for three touchdowns but had six turnovers, including a 100-yard pick-six in a game-changing moment against Oklahoma.

To his credit, the spirited junior showed his growth in both the offense and as a quarterback by not throwing a single interception during spring practice.

“There are levels to this stuff and that’s why guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were so great. It’s not because they threw the ball that much better than anybody, it’s because they knew what was going on all the time and they knew every possibility,” Retzlaff said. “That’s the reason you can come out of spring ball without an interception because you know what’s going on. The game is slowing down. Having another year in the offense does that.”

Quarterback battle

BYU signed veteran quarterback Gerry Bohanon this offseason to compete with Retzlaff for the starting job. Bohanon sat out 2023 at South Florida to heal from shoulder surgery. In 2021, he beat BYU and led Baylor to the Big 12 Championship.

“It’s cool to have a guy in the (QB) room who has done it before,” Retzlaff said. “To be able to bounce things off him is great and I think he’s been able to do that off me because I’ve been in the offense already. I love having him in the room. We will be able to feed off each other so much.”

With Ryder Burton’s transfer to West Virginia, no one in the quarterback room has more than a year of residency and surprisingly, there is no one on the offensive staff who played quarterback. As experienced as he is, Bohanon won seniority the moment he walked in the door, but as for claiming the starting job, that will be harder to do.

Retzlaff is determined to produce some “good news” and represent his faith while doing it. The Cougars report to fall camp on July 30. Until then, “It’s just work your tail off and build culture. One of the best ways to build culture is to do hard things together,” he said. “These summer workouts are vital for a team to build the team.”

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) signals during spring football practice at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo on March 10, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Jake Retzlaff (12) signals during spring football practice at the BYU Indoor Practice Facility in Provo on March 10, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a sports writer and columnist for the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar,” available at deseretbook.com.