Zach Wilson had an idea.
The BYU quarterback last season had been studying the film of the Cougars’ upcoming opponent, Houston, and he detected a weakness. He thought he could get the best of one of their cornerbacks, so he took the idea to passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick.
“He told me, ‘I want to go after this one corner. I want to go after him the first play of the game,’ ” Roderick recalled recently. “He told me the play call he wanted and he said, ‘If I can get that guy to turn his back, I’m going to throw a touchdown pass on the first play.’ That’s a pretty bold statement.”
Roderick likes being aggressive and told Wilson, “Let’s do it, but don’t force anything.”
On BYU’s first play from scrimmage, Roderick called the play, which had wide receiver Dax Milne running a go-route against the corner Wilson wanted to target. Wilson faked a handoff, then unleashed a perfect throw to Milne for a 78-yard touchdown.
When he got back to the sideline, he picked up the phone and told Roderick, “Hey coach, I told you.”
BYU went on to win that Oct. 16, 2020 game 43-26, scoring 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Wilson’s first throw of the game, however, was the one that encapsulates the player the Jets are expected to draft No. 2 overall on Thursday.
Wilson combines preparation with confidence and talent to deliver for his team. Teammates and coaches describe him as a film junkie whose preparation puts him ahead of others. Add that to incredible ability and a swagger that makes those around him believe and you have a package that has brought Wilson from a scrawny, under-recruited high school quarterback to the brink of being the (baby) face of an NFL franchise.
“His instincts are something I’ve never seen from anyone,” said Fesi Sitake, BYU’s wide receivers coach. “His ability to process all of his meticulous, obsessive film study, and then on the field it doesn’t handcuff him. He plays free. He does things instinctively that you can only do when you have the talent combined with preparation.”
Wilson wears a wristband that says, “Prove them wrong.” The slights of others have pushed him to become one of the best quarterbacks in college football — and, the Jets hope, a long-awaited franchise savior.
“Something I feel that separates me is just my passion for the game,” Wilson said last month. “I really put a lot of time into what I do. Throughout all the years, I’ve really dedicated my life to football. It’s crazy. People ask me what I do outside of football, and football is really my life. It’s all I’ve got going on.”
Wilson grew up in Draper, Utah, one of six children. His father Mike played defensive line at Utah in the 1990s and his mother Lisa’s family was devoted Utes fans. Her family had season tickets to Utah football games for 40 years.
Zach told the Deseret News that he learned management skills from his parents, grandparents and his mother’s siblings — one of whom is David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airways. This helped him overcome attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
As part of that love of Utah football, Wilson attended the Utes’ football camps every summer starting in second grade. Kalani Sitake was a Utah assistant coach when he first saw Wilson throw. He thinks Wilson must have been 11 or 12.
“You could see he was something special,” said Sitake, now BYU’s head coach.
Brayden Cosper got to know Wilson, not just on the football field, but also on the basketball court. Wilson was a point guard, who was good enough to play on elite AAU teams in Utah and star at the sport through his junior year of high school before giving it up to focus on football.
Cosper said it was not just Wilson’s ability that stood out, but his confidence, something that might be hard to detect in a 12-year-old.
“It’s the way they carry themselves, you can kind of tell,” said Cosper, who is now a BYU wide receiver. “They’ve got that swagger, that confidence and then also the decisions he would make. He would make throws even when we were younger that were like, ‘Wow, that’s a tough throw.’ You kind of have to have some [guts].”
Tre Ofahengaue runs football camps and 7-on-7 tournaments in Utah. In the summer before Wilson’s sophomore year of high school, Ofahengaue saw him at a BYU camp. His first thought was how scrawny the 6-foot, 160-pound Wilson looked.
Then, Ofahengaue saw him throw a back-shoulder pass.
“When I saw him throw, I was like, ‘This dude is legit.’ ”
Wilson joined Ofahenague’s 7-on-7 team through his company Level Up Elites, and they began winning tournaments despite having a revolving cast of receivers.
Fesi Sitake was an assistant coach at Weber State when he spotted Wilson at Utah’s summer football camp.
“You see this scrawny, little noodle that physically didn’t look the part at all, but when I saw him throw, I was like, ‘Holy cow, this kid can spin it.’ ” Sitake said. “By the end of the camp, I knew he was an offer kid.”
Sitake gave Wilson his first scholarship offer and others did not follow quickly. Wilson was undersized, and Utah is not known for producing quarterbacks, so he was overlooked by many programs. Wilson committed to Boise State in June, before his senior season. The family stocked up on Boise State merchandise, and he was ready to go there — until his breakout senior season.
Wilson threw for 2,986 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 752 yards and eight touchdowns in his senior season at Corner Canyon High School. Suddenly, schools like Iowa and nearby BYU were calling.
The Wilsons were huge Utah fans, but Utes coach Kyle Whittingham had recruited a different quarterback. BYU had been eyeing another quarterback as well, but after firing offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, the coaching staff shifted its focus to Wilson.
“It was a full-court press,” said Fesi Sitake, now a BYU assistant.
It took convincing Lisa Wilson that BYU was the right place, but that happened during a four-hour meeting with BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, who sold the Wilsons on Zach staying close to home and being able to spend more time with the close-knit family.
Wilson decommitted to Boise State, and the Wilsons broke the news to the extended family at a Christmas gathering by distributing the words to the BYU fight song along with their traditional Christmas carols.
The snub by Utah and other schools had planted a seed in Wilson and had given him a chip on his shoulder.
“There’s no question about it,” said Roderick, his quarterbacks coach. “He’s such a competitive person. I know that he relishes being an underdog. He relished every opportunity he got in college to play against someone that was more highly recruited than him. He always has an angle of motivation for himself. It never stops.”
Wilson skipped his senior basketball season and graduated early from high school to get to BYU in the spring semester before his freshman football season. He quickly made an impression on the coaching staff during spring practice.
“Just how he carried himself, how much command he had, how much swagger he had, how much confidence he had,” Fesi Sitake said. “It’s so rare to see a freshman with that type of demeanor. In fact, it’s so rare that I think a lot of the team thought, ‘Hold on, who does this kid think he is?’ I think it rubbed some guys the wrong way. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He just had a level of confidence that you don’t see in a freshman.”
Wilson became the youngest starting quarterback in BYU history midway through his freshman season. He threw 12 touchdown passes and was intercepted just three times in the 2018 season, but he needed surgery to repair his throwing shoulder after the year. That surgery affected his 2019 season, when players and coaches at BYU have said he was not healthy. He also dealt with a thumb injury that year, which forced him to miss four games.
That led to the coaching staff opening up a competition for the starting job in 2020.
“There was no concern on his part,” Kalani Sitake said. “He was just like, ‘Let’s go.’ He’s all about competing. The guy’s an extreme competitor. Other quarterbacks would have said I’m transferring or something like that, this guy said, ‘Let’s go to work.’ ”
COVID-19 ended the Cougars’ spring practices after five sessions. Wilson did not rest, though. He began taking trips to Southern California to work with personal quarterback coach John Beck. He flew sometimes, but also drove five or six times, a 10-hour, one-way trip. Wilson would listen to Steve Young’s audio book “QB: My Life Behind the Spiral” and the Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” on the trips. He stayed with the family of a teammate in Southern California and delivered meals for DoorDash to earn extra money.
When BYU reconvened for fall camp, it was clear that Wilson was the best quarterback for the team, and he won the job. He then had a season for the ages — completing 73.5 percent of his passes for 3,692 yards, with 33 touchdowns and three interceptions, and leading BYU to an 11-1 record.
“He finally got his opportunity,” his friend and BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney said. “The year before he struggled with his shoulder. The year before that he was fighting for a starting position. I think just the year of preparation he got. None of us took time off during COVID. We were all still working, Zach especially saw that as an opportunity to get himself ahead. He saw this year as an opportunity to prove himself.”
Wilson’s success did not just come from God-given ability. Those around him said he is obsessive with how he works.
“This guy’s a football junkie,” Kalani Sitake said. “He studies film like crazy.”
Cosper and Romney both lived with Wilson at BYU. They said they would get home after a full day of football and class ready to relax, but Wilson was studying film.
“The dude was always watching film,” Cosper said. “He’s literally addicted to watching film.”
It was not just film of BYU or the Cougars’ opponents. Wilson studied NFL quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes then would try to imitate what he saw on film in practice. Romney remembers one day when Wilson tried a no-look pass like Mahomes, something that did not go over well with the coaches.
Roderick, his quarterbacks coach, said he would get texts from Wilson at midnight: “Hey Coach, did you see this play? What if we do it out of this formation?” He said Wilson already would have watched their road games before their plane took off and would want to go over the game. Later in the flight, Roderick would walk down the aisle and find Wilson watching tape of the Packers.
“I’m like, ‘Dude, go to sleep. Get some rest,’ and he just wants to talk about Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees or Mahomes,” Roderick said.
This spring, Sitake said he has been getting calls from Wilson to discuss the BYU spring practices that he likes to watch and break down, even though he is about to be the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft.
“I don’t know how many other people are doing that,” Kalani Sitake said. “That’s what he likes to do. He doesn’t do too many other things. He likes football and he’s going to be a great coach whenever his NFL career is done.”
Wilson has gone from an unknown nationally to one of the most discussed prospects in this year’s NFL draft. The newfound celebrity has not affected him, his friends say.
“I have not seen it touch him at all,” Cosper said. “He’s still the same dude.”
Ofahengaue was hosting a 7-on-7 event in January. Wilson told him he was going to buy a ticket to watch. Ofahengaue laughed and told him he would rather have him address the boys from the 97 teams in the event. Wilson told him, “None of these dudes know who I am,” unaware of the celebrity he had become. When he showed up, the line was out the door to get a photo with him.
“We all know he’s big-time, but if you know Zach, he’s never, ever said he’s better than anybody,” Ofahengaue said.
That is what makes those close to Wilson believe a kid from Draper, Utah, will do just fine under the bright lights of New York.
“I think the Jets are going to love him, because if Zach wasn’t the quarterback for the New York Jets, he’s the type of fan the Jets have,” Fesi Sitake said. “That type of innate swagger and confidence and high expectations and competitive nature that New York has. That is Zach Wilson. That’s why I think everyone is going to take a huge liking to him.”