IT WASN’T EASY to get them all together for a weekend of golf and fundraising, but for their old coach, BYU legend LaVell Edwards, who was going to say no?
This wasn’t an ordinary gathering of former players, though, because BYU has a specific type of notable alumni: quarterbacks. Edwards produced an unheard of seven All-Americans at the position during his Hall of Fame career, and every one of them showed up in Provo, Utah, that Friday in the summer of 2010.
At the opening tee, the Quarterback Factory was on full display. Foursomes included Super Bowl champions Jim McMahon and Steve Young, national champion Robbie Bosco and golden boy Ty Detmer, the only Heisman Trophy winner among the school’s five finalists.
Edwards, who died six years later, is remembered for modernizing the passing game and turning BYU into a national brand in college football. He forged an identity and a belief in a specific style of play that persists, and the weight of which falls squarely on one position.
“For those that don’t know BYU,” Bosco said, “we are with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and we are a private school and we like to throw the football.”
Award-winners and Heisman Trophy finalists like Bosco are the expectation for a BYU quarterback. And for a long time, the program struggled to find anyone capable of living up to those lofty standards.
But as it turns out, the next in line was right up the road, less than a 30-minute drive from the stadium that bears Edwards’ name. Except Zach Wilson couldn’t ever envision himself putting on the uniform.
The self-assured son of a former Utah defensive lineman, he grew up feeling nothing but animus for the other half of the rivalry known as the Holy War. And BYU didn’t show much initial interest in him, either, which bothered him.
“Once I got older, I still had no love at all for the BYU offensive staff and the guys they had there,” Wilson said. “I had no desire to want to play for them and be part of that team.”
But the ground would shift, hostilities would be set aside and BYU would show one hero the door to make room for another.
As Wilson, 21, leads 10-1 BYU into the RoofClaim.com Boca Raton Bowl against UCF on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPN and the ESPN App), here’s how he found his way to a program he once despised — then lived up to its great expectations.
BEFORE HE BECAME the swaggering quarterback who regularly lights up social media with Patrick Mahomes-esque improvisational plays, Wilson was just another kid lost in the vast ecosystem of recruiting.
He didn’t look the part. He was maybe 6-feet tall but tiny — or, in the words of former Weber State assistant Fesi Sitake, “a skinny little noodle.” But the spritely Wilson became the highlight of the camp.
“He could sling it,” Sitake said.
Weber State, an FCS program that routinely punches above its weight, seized the opportunity and gave Wilson his first scholarship offer. He wasn’t the typical awkward or shy recruit, Sitake said. Instead, he found Wilson engaging and charismatic.
“Like a too-good-to-be-true type of recruit,” Sitake said.
For a long time, Wilson remained Weber State’s secret. For almost two years, FBS schools did little more than sniff around. But eventually, others took notice.
As Wilson went from an unknown to a four-star prospect, Group of 5 powerhouse Boise State came calling. Wilson also attended a camp at BYU, but it already had another quarterback in mind and the coaches gave him the impression they weren’t interested. So in June 2017, Wilson bypassed Weber State’s offer and committed to Boise State.
But as Wilson began his senior season, the situation at BYU was changing. The Cougars endured a seven-game losing streak under second-year coach Kalani Sitake (no relation to Fesi Sitake). They limped to a 4-9 finish and ranked 123rd in points per game.
Two days after the season ended, the coach made the difficult decision to let go of a BYU legend: Ty Detmer, the school’s only Heisman winner and the team’s offensive coordinator of two years.
A week after the announcement about Detmer, the quarterback BYU had been eyeing for the 2018 class — Detmer’s nephew, Zadock Dinkelmann — decommitted. Nine days later, Wilson informed Boise State he was reopening his recruitment. He was on BYU’s campus within 48 hours.
As Wilson toured the facilities, he couldn’t believe he was entertaining the possibility. A 15-year-old version of himself, he said, would have shouted, “No way!”
But the former staff he’d held a grudge against was gone. His old recruiter at Weber State, Fesi Sitake, was being brought in to coach receivers, and Aaron Roderick, a former Utah coordinator, was set to coach quarterbacks. Kalani Sitake also had a tie to the Utah program, having spent nine seasons as an assistant where he met a young Wilson and had become friends with his father.
“Thankfully, there was enough time to offset some of those extreme emotions,” Fesi Sitake said.
The message from the staff was simple: If you’re looking to play close to home and you want to play a high level of football, we check those boxes. The head coach believed deep down that Wilson could be special and told him he could “make a mark and be known” at BYU.
Wilson, who had grown up watching All-American John Beck, committed knowing full well the school’s history at quarterback and the standard expected.
“I was excited for the pressure that it brings,” he said.
WILSON EXISTS ON that narrow border between confidence and arrogance. He looks like he belongs in a boy band with his baby face and spiky hair, and he carries himself like the lead singer.
That’s fine when a player has proved himself, but when you’re that way as a true freshman, it can rub some the wrong way.
Wilson arrived with his head held high and his shoulders pulled back. He said he respected incumbent quarterback Tanner Mangum, but also made it clear that he wasn’t there to dutifully wait his turn. He wanted to play right away and wasn’t shy about holding teammates accountable.
“He didn’t say things off the wall like, ‘I’m the best quarterback,'” Fesi Sitake said. “But he carried himself that way. And it’s rare to see that from a true freshman who looks like he’s 14 years old. It shocked teammates.”
He thought back to the player whose magnetism he first noticed at the Weber State camp.
“It was just a matter of time before they realized that’s a real swagger,” he said.
It didn’t take long. Teammates and coaches saw what was taking place that spring and fall in 2018. The kid had an arm and could run and could take a hit. Whenever he spoke to the media, that arrogance vanished as he repeatedly deferred to teammates.
BYU quickly fell for Wilson, making him the youngest quarterback in school history to start when he was penciled into the lineup seven games into his freshman season. He beat Hawai’i in his debut before capping the year with a bowl win over Western Michigan in which he completed 18 of 18 passes.
That set an expectation of perfection, which would prove difficult to sustain. Wilson had been playing with a shoulder injury and wasn’t able to participate in spring practice or the offseason program. He was on a pitch count during fall camp and Roderick even brought up redshirting his sophomore year.
Wilson said no and struggled in a season-opening loss to Utah. Three weeks later, he broke his thumb. Surgery was supposed to keep him out six weeks but he had the metal pins removed and returned in four. His completion percentage dipped from the previous season as he threw one fewer touchdown and his interceptions tripled from three to nine.
Roderick said his inbox filled with messages calling for Wilson to be replaced.
“It’s not good enough just to be good here and score points,” said Roderick, a former BYU receiver. “People are only happy if you do it by throwing the football around, and it’s been that way for a long time.”
Fesi Sitake worried about Wilson.
“I knew there were weak points he had,” he said, “but I knew this guy wasn’t going to crumble.”
Wilson admitted that his confidence did slightly waver but he said that the frustration became fuel. He heard whispers of a quarterback competition and couldn’t believe it.
“The whole offseason was me wanting to prove something,” he said.
Wilson went to California to train under Beck, who had become an instructor at 3DQB, the home of renowned quarterback guru Tom House. New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees made a few appearances at the facility.
With the additional unknown of whether they’d play during a pandemic, Wilson was on edge.
“It was a roller coaster,” he said. “I was anxious to get back on the field.”
Anxious to prove that BYU could be a top program again — and that he is a top quarterback.
FESI SITAKE WAS dumbstruck. Wilson had just pulled off an incredible play and was breaking it down for his receivers coach on the sideline.
“This kid’s different,” he thought. “He gets it.”
On its face, it was another Mahomes-esque improvisational play. Wilson took the snap at midfield, was flushed out to his right and crow-hopped forward, throwing the ball awkwardly off his front foot just as a defender crashed into him. The ball sailed down the far side of the field and into the waiting hands of Dax Milne, who caught it at the goal line for a touchdown.
But while the TV camera focused on Milne taking a celebratory bow, it missed the grin on Wilson’s face as he went back to the sideline, shouting, “I knew it! I knew it!”
He had intentionally flushed himself out of the pocket. As he lined up before the snap, he’d read that Texas State was in a Tampa 2 defense, meaning the two safeties would be guarding the sidelines and therefore making a deep pass difficult.
There was a hole in the defense he’d noticed during film study earlier in the week. He’d seen how SMU’s quarterback had scrambled to his right against Texas State and how the safety on the far side had cheated toward him, away from the sideline and toward the middle of the field.
Wilson said he didn’t blame the safety for doing that. It’s a tiny window he was leaving open and it’s about 60 yards when you account for the angle of the pass.
Not many quarterbacks can make that throw, let alone set it up. But that’s exactly what Wilson did when he scrambled, moved the safeties with his eyes and launched the ball with enough velocity that it didn’t give the secondary time to adjust.
What looks like improv actually isn’t. Wilson isn’t playing backyard football and making up stuff on the fly. He’s setting up defenses and executing plays he prepared for.
He’s part of the new generation of quarterbacks who practice throwing off-platform and from awkward arm angles the same way Stephen Curry practices shooting from half court.
An NFL scout recently mentioned to Roderick a play in which Wilson had one of his throwing lanes covered up. Pressured, Wilson started to scramble, which drew the defense just enough.
“He got the linebacker to move and then threw a 20-yard dig route on the run,” Roderick said. “It was a no-look throw like Magic Johnson.”
Even though Kalani Sitake grew up a hard-nosed fullback in a bygone era, he loves that kind of creativity.
“When these young people start working on it and perfecting their craft, man, it’s beautiful,” he said. “Even if you’re on the other team, it’s like, ‘Wow.'”
Wilson’s game is also ruthlessly efficient with 30 passing touchdowns to only three interceptions. He ranks in the top five of qualifying passers nationally in yards (3,267), yards per attempt (10.82) and completion percentage (73.2%).
While he’s a capable runner, rushing for 242 yards and eight touchdowns, he’s not a run-first quarterback. He’s a playmaker, plain and simple.
“I think that’s what has been so exciting about this year,” he said, “I’ve had the trust of my coaches to be able to practice those things and have fun with it and not be so much of a robot. It’s worked out in my favor and the team’s favor of winning more games and creating some big-time plays.
“It’s a thing I want to keep improving on and adding to my game.”
HOW LONG WILSON continues to hone his craft at BYU remains to be seen. ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. considers him the third-best quarterback available and a potential top-15 pick.
While Kalani Sitake said the NFL has been on Wilson’s mind a long time, he does not know what his quarterback will decide. Wilson, for his part, is choosing to focus on the season finale against UCF on Tuesday.
A win would mark the first time BYU has ended the season with one loss since Edwards led the Cougars to a win in the Cotton Bowl in 1996. The quarterback for that team: Edwards’ last All-American at the position, Steve Sarkisian.
That Wilson was part of the Heisman Trophy race this season, regardless of where he ultimately finishes, is a testament to him having lived up to the expectation set by Sarkisian and the others before him.
Bosco said Wilson serves as a reminder of what his program is and what it can be.
“It’s something that is etched in stone,” he said. “BYU will be remembered as Quarterback U.”