Why the McCae Hillstead transfer to BYU is drawing so much attention, projection

Utah State quarterback McCae Hillstead scrambles during the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Boise, Idaho. Georgia State won 45-22. Hillstead recently entered the transfer portal and committed to BYU. Some pundits believe he's good enough to start for the Cougars in 2024.
Utah State quarterback McCae Hillstead scrambles during the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in Boise, Idaho. Georgia State won 45-22. Hillstead recently entered the transfer portal and committed to BYU. Some pundits believe he's good enough to start for the Cougars in 2024. | Steve Conner, Associated Press

Why do folks talk about quarterback depth four months before the college football season begins?

There are a lot of reasons.

It’s late spring and spring practices are over and QB talk is, well, what you do.

The transfer portal has provided more headlines beyond the regular football season.

These days, valued portal transfers are more important than high school signees.

In the case of former Skyridge High and Utah State starting quarterback McCae Hillstead transferring from USU to BYU, it’s a matter of headline-making projections that have resonated on college football watchers.

When the Hillstead news hit more than a week ago, Scott Garrard, a host of 1280 The Zone radio and voice of the Aggies, proclaimed on the air and social media that Hillstead would end up as BYU’s starting quarterback during the 2024 season.

Garrard wasn’t alone.

Dustin Smith of QBElite, who has worked for years with Hillstead, told me Hillstead would definitely find a spot at BYU and be in the pecking order to start. A day later on ESPN 960 radio, Smith reiterated his thoughts, telling the audience Hillstead would find a role and spot at BYU.

QBElite instructors over the years have included Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Kurt Warner, Koy Detmer, Brandon Doman and Max Hall.

“I think McCae is going to come in there and he’s going to take the starting spot this year. He’s gonna come in and turn heads right away,” Smith told host Ben Criddle.

“That’s not to knock on the other guys that are there, but this kid, if he can stay healthy, he’s a very unique talent who can do some things that he’s done since he was a sophomore. He’s played in big-time games and he’s clutch. He’s so humble and he wants to learn, he wants to come see me two or three days a week and he’s driving down the Spanish Fork.”

Smith has worked extensively over the years with a myriad of college QBs, including former Cougars Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall, both on NFL rosters.

When asked about all these projections on Hillstead surfacing since his USU transfer, Smith told me, “Like Jaren Hall, I have spent time with McCae going back to his junior high days. McCae is as coachable and as athletic as any QB I’ve coached. He is humble, incredibly quick, with a strong arm and a quick release. He learns quickly and wants to learn, which makes him extra easy to work with because he asks questions and soaks up opportunities to get better.

“He will be a team and a fan favorite at BYU if he can stay healthy and be able to play his style of ball, using his legs and his abilities to create. He is also ultra competitive. I’m not saying he is Jaren Hall, but they share very similar characteristics. BYU will love him.”

Over the weekend, on a trip to the 50th anniversary of the Roosevelt golf course in eastern Utah, Greg Graves, a veteran high school official who is very familiar with Hillstead’s game, told me his ability to throw receivers open is elite. “He has a talent for throwing the ball where the receiver is supposed to be before the receiver breaks and that is a kind of innate vision and anticipation that many do not have. This, and his arm strength, makes him a very good QB,” said Graves.

It doesn’t hurt that Hillstead runs the 100 meters in the 10.9 range.

Smith said that makes him the fastest QB he’s ever coached.

BYU currently has put stock in Jake Retzlaff and transfers Gerry Bohanon, Treyson Bourguet and Cade Fennegan. Hillstead will come into that QB room under Aaron Roderick and find a spot.

“BYU is going to love McCae if he can stay healthy,” Smith told ESPN radio. “They were most successful with Zach and Jaren. Not only could they make the throws but they were able to do things with their feet, be creative, throw off platform and hit different arm angles, be off balance, and make some of those plays that you’d have to be just athletic to make.”

“It’s hard to teach those things, but McCae has that. He is just a sponge when it comes to wanting to learn the game.”

So, why all the fuss this early in the offseason?

Because QB depth does matter, as BYU, Utah and Utah State found out last year when starters were injured.

Retzlaff, who’d never played Division I football after transferring as a juco All-American, took over for an injured Kedon Slovis in the heat of Big 12 play and the learning curve was big when the run game struggled.

At Utah, Bryson Barnes got the call when Cam Rising took the year off due to injury. He had mixed results before he was injured at the end.

At USU, Hillstead got hurt against UConn after an inspiring four-game start for the Aggies.

This brings up the importance of a QB room that does have experience. Replacements matter.

With Hillstead, Retzlaff, Bohanon and Fennegan (former Boise State starter), this group has played in a combined 45 games that include a Big 12 title and Sugar Bowl win.

Of course, some would argue about their talent and productivity with that playing time, but it is experience.

Take Utah’s QB room at this stage of the preseason. Utah returns Cam Rising, expected to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country if he stays healthy after major knee surgery and sitting out 2023.

With Barnes transferring to USU and Nate Johnson leaving for Vanderbilt, as it stands now, Rising’s backups include incoming freshman Isaac Wilson and much-lauded Brandon Rose. Neither has game experience. Utah did go after Hillstead in the portal for that very reason.

This past year in the Big 12, half of the starting quarterbacks were injured, eight in all. This included BYU’s Slovis, and starters at Texas, Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech, TCU, West Virginia and Central Florida.

QB depth could again prove to be a big deal this coming season in the Big 12.

That’s why QB chatter in May matters.

That’s why folks discuss the Hillstead transfer in this market.