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No ordinary Joe: Quarterback signee Joe Critchlow takes serendipitous, circuitous route to BYU

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As a kid, Joe has had a BYU flag signed by Ty Detmer hanging in his room. He dreamed to someday follow in his footsteps, but it is a dream come true to actually play for him and walk side by side in his footsteps at BYU. – David Critchlow

PROVO — While quarterback Joe Critchlow was passing his way to a record-setting career at Franklin High in Tennessee a few years ago, he was also attracting attention from several football programs, including Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference schools.

But interest in Critchlow waned when he informed those schools about his intentions of serving a two-year LDS Church mission.

The tall, athletic, red-headed QB instead ended up signing with Southern Utah University in February 2015, before departing for the (French-speaking) Montreal Canada Mission.

“A lot of people here in Tennessee were shocked that Joe didn’t sign with a big program out of high school,” said his father, David.

But thanks to a series of serendipitous events, including chance encounters with coach Ed Lamb and NFL quarterback Brad Sorensen before his mission, Critchlow became a surprise addition to BYU’s 2017 recruiting class on Signing Day.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder is scheduled to return home from his mission in June, then enroll at BYU.

BYU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ty Detmer loves Critchlow’s ability to run a pro-style offense, his quick release and his maturity. While the two have traded some emails recently, they’ve never met in person.

“He gives us some depth and another guy in the program that’s a pro-style kid. I watched some of the interviews he did in Tennessee and he’s really well-spoken,” Detmer said. “He understands the game. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s somebody we thought could come in and help us, obviously, or he wouldn’t be here. We’ll give him his shot and see where it goes from there.”

Junior Tanner Mangum will start at quarterback next fall for the Cougars, while Beau Hoge and Koy Detmer Jr., are among the QBs also on the roster. They’ll be joined this fall by recently returned missionary Kody Wilstead and Critchlow. Hoge and Wilstead, who graduated the same year as Critchlow, were signed by BYU in 2015, when Critchlow signed with SUU.

Until recently, it didn’t appear Critchlow would get his shot at playing for the Cougars. And it might not have happened without some fortuitous occurrences.

Critchlow was a three-year starter at Franklin High, which competes in the biggest, and most competitive classification in Tennessee. He set school records for career completions and attempts (415 of 683), passing yards (5,703), touchdowns (68) and QB rating (108.5). He was named District Offensive Player of the Year for the Rebels.

He posted some impressive numbers in the classroom as well, scoring a 31 on the ACT and earning a 4.3 GPA. He also received the Admiral William P. Lawrence Award, given to the top high school football scholar-athlete in Middle Tennessee.

After Critchlow’s sophomore season, schools like Georgia, Vanderbilt, Memphis, Wake Forest, Virginia and Western Kentucky started showing interest.

Some LDS players don’t reveal their plans of serving a mission, or don't decide if they will serve, until after they go through the recruiting process. But Critchlow was candid and direct. He told schools he would be serving right out of high school.

“Sometimes, honesty doesn’t pay off in the short term,” David Critchlow said. “A lot of schools that had been very interested in him let him know that they would not be interested if he served a mission. In the South, football is so big. Schools say, ‘We’re going to give you a scholarship and you’re going on a mission instead? Are you an idiot?’ I’d say 99 percent of our friends here are non-LDS. They’ve known for 20 years that we’re LDS but they still ask questions. People have a hard time understanding our culture from the outside.”

Joe grew up in the Nashville area, dreaming of playing for BYU and becoming the school’s next great quarterback. For years, he has had a BYU flag, signed by Detmer, hanging in his bedroom.

As one of the few members of the LDS Church at his high school, Joe became accustomed to standing out in the crowd and being different.

“He’s always stood by his faith and his principles,” Critchlow said.

Joe wouldn’t practice on Sundays because he wanted to keep the Sabbath Day holy. So his coaches changed the practice times to accommodate him.

With Joe being the only LDS player on his high school basketball team, opposing fans would taunt him and say derogatory things about his religion. But some in the Franklin High student section, known as “The Rebellion,” would start chanting, “Stormin’ Mormon!” to drown out the negative chants, even though they weren’t Mormon themselves.

As football programs backed away from Joe, his three-star recruiting rating dropped after his junior season to a two-star rating, since those ratings are often related to the number of offers.

Programs wanted to offer Joe a full-ride scholarship if he didn’t go on a mission. But when he didn’t waver in his commitment to a mission, the schools only offered him a preferred walk-on spot or said he could try out to earn a scholarship when he returned.

Joe was named to The Opening 2014-15 QB Watch List and finished in the top 5 at two regional Elite 11 competitions. At one point, he was rated the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in Mid-State and the No. 2 pro-style QB in Tennessee.

For two straight summers, Joe participated in the BYU football camps for high school players, and twice was named MVP. While there, he met Lamb, who at the time was the head coach at Southern Utah University. Lamb was impressed with Critchlow but didn’t think he'd be able to compete for the services of such a talented player.

“I felt like he was flying a little bit under the radar,” Lamb recalled. “I approached him and talked to him. He had some FBS offers so I didn’t think we’d have much of a shot at him.”

Former Southern Utah head football coach Ed Lamb, now assistant head coach at BYU, was tipped off to Joe Critchlow's availability from his former SUU quarterback Brad Sorensen. Photo credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Former BYU head coach Gary Crowton was serving as SUU’s offensive coordinator back then. Crowton and David Critchlow had played for the same coach in college, David Arslanian. Arslanian had coached Crowton at Snow Junior College and then coached David Critchlow at Weber State. Arslanian recommended that Crowton take a look at Joe, so Crowton reached out to the Critchlows.

“It’s a smaller school, but if he wants to come to SUU,” Crowton told them, “we’d love to give him an opportunity.”

At the time, the Critchlows didn’t think much of it.

Brad Sorensen served a mission to Spain, and when he returned he passed for more than 2,000 yards at San Bernadino Valley College. Then he spent one season at BYU as a walk-on quarterback in 2009.

But the Cougars were well-stocked at that position with Max Hall, who was a three-year senior starter, as well as Brenden Gaskins, Utah State transfer Riley Nelson and Josh Hamblin. Though Hall and Gaskins were seniors, the future didn’t look promising for Sorensen at BYU, especially with one of the nation’s top high school recruits, Jake Heaps, set to step on campus the following January.

Sorensen, feeling overlooked and buried on the depth chart, decided to transfer in 2010 to SUU, where he immediately became the starter and eventually became the school’s all-time leading passer. Playing for Lamb, Sorensen threw for 9,445 yards and 61 touchdowns in three seasons and was drafted in the seventh round of the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers in 2013.

Sorensen calls transferring to SUU “the best decision I could have ever made.”

After spending one season with the Chargers, Sorensen was picked up by the Tennessee Titans in September 2014.

Former San Diego Chargers quarterback Brad Sorensen, who played a year at BYU before transferring to and starring at SUU, played an integral role in landing Joe Critchlow on BYU's radar. Photo credit: Lenny Ignelzi, Associated Press

Sorensen’s younger brother, Daniel, who starred at safety for BYU, was a rookie at the time with the Kansas City Chiefs. When Daniel learned of his brother’s move to Tennessee, he knew someone in the Kansas City area named Keith Chambers, who had a friend in the Nashville area named David Critchlow. Chambers — whose son Austin, an offensive lineman, would end up signing at BYU — and Critchlow had been teammates at Weber State.

“I didn’t know how long I was going to be in Tennessee,” Brad Sorensen recalled. “I was looking for a place to sleep on a couch. So I gave the Critchlows a call.”

Brad Sorensen arrived in the Nashville area and attended one of Joe Critchlow’s high school football games.

“Joe was actually one of the better high school quarterbacks I’ve ever seen play. I think it was the first time I had met Joe,” Sorensen said. “I talked to him and went to church with the family on Sunday. I stayed the night, stayed with them Monday, and I ended up getting released by the Titans shortly after that. I was really impressed with the Critchlow family. I was there only for a few days. It was a weird string of events. It shows how close the Mormon culture is.”

Sorensen could relate to Joe’s frustration with the recruiting process. Like Joe, he had been an LDS athlete with a desire to serve a mission and then play college football.

“I went through the same thing when I was playing high school football in California,” Sorensen said. “When Joe told schools he was going on a mission, it scared them off. It’s hard to swallow that. You feel like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing and you’re not getting rewarded for it. I told him everything would work out.”

Things had worked out for Sorensen despite the rocky path he had traveled. During their conversations, Sorensen told Joe about his experience at SUU, praising Lamb and the school.

“I told Joe that SUU was a fantastic place and I couldn't speak highly enough about Ed and his staff,” Sorensen said. “I told Joe, ‘If nothing works out with your first or second options, you should consider Southern Utah.’”

It wasn’t until Joe met Brad that he began to seriously consider SUU.

Sorensen stayed in contact with Joe, offering encouragement. Then he went to work to help Joe find a place to play football in part to repay the Critchlows for their kindness and hospitality. So he contacted the coaches at Southern Utah and Weber State.

“I told them to consider this kid,” said Sorensen, who is now retired from football. “Ed Lamb already knew about him because he had seen him at BYU’s football camp. But all Ed knew about him was that he was a red-headed kid from Tennessee. That was all he knew. Well, he also knew that he was a heckuva player.”

The Critchlows traveled to Cedar City to visit the school and get acquainted with the coaching staff.

Joe was sold.

“Brad was such a great guy, and he spoke so highly of Southern Utah and coach Lamb,” David Critchlow said. “After his visit, Joe came away saying, ‘I don’t care where it’s at. Coach Lamb is a first-class individual.’ Coach Lamb really wanted Joe to play for him.”

Just before Signing Day in 2015, Joe told Sorensen he had decided to become a Thunderbird.

“I told him that would be an awesome decision,” Sorensen recalled.

On Signing Day, Lamb said that Critchlow was probably one of the most decorated recruits he had signed at SUU.

Elder Joe Critchlow has been serving as an assistant to the mission president for 10 months in Montreal. He’s been focused on missionary work, not football.

The day after Christmas in 2015, BYU announced that new head coach Kalani Sitake had hired Lamb as assistant head coach. Lamb left SUU after serving as head coach for eight seasons.

Upon hearing the news, David Critchlow reached out to Lamb to wish him luck in his new job.

“I knew Joe wanted to play for coach Lamb,” Critchlow said. “I let him know if there was any opportunity or a need for a quarterback at BYU, Joe would be interested to play for Lamb and the new coaching staff. Joe didn’t want to go to Southern Utah without coach Lamb.”

Crowton had previously left SUU months earlier, which meant none of the coaches who had recruited Joe were still in Cedar City.

“Joe didn’t know any of the coaches,” Critchlow said, “and they didn’t know him.”

Lamb recalled Joe’s parents reaching out to him. “The first conversation was, ‘We can’t go anywhere without contacting Southern Utah first,’” Lamb said.

Soon, the Critchlows requested a release from SUU.

“They were great about it and they gave him that release not knowing where Joe would go,” Critchlow said.

“Joe let SUU know he wanted to be somewhere else,” Lamb said. “They only want guys at SUU that want to be there.”

The recruiting process started up again and Joe began receiving interest from Memphis, Georgia and BYU.

All communication went through David, who relayed conversations to his son during his weekly email, updating him on the latest developments.

Coaches at various schools had a difficult time understanding the lifestyle of a missionary.

“Some schools would call us and say, ‘Can we talk to Joe? Is there a way he can come home for the weekend so we can see him throw? Does he come home on the weekends?'” Critchlow said, chuckling. “That’s not going to happen. He’s on his mission. They just didn’t understand that. They wanted to have him go to their school and throw. We said no. They felt that was so harsh. They don’t understand the commitment there.”


Joe Critchlow's mission portrait. Photo credit: Courtesy Angie Miller

BYU, which perennially has dozens of returned missionaries on its roster, understands perfectly.

Sorensen kept in touch with both Lamb and the Critchlows — and he’s written Joe regularly on his mission — and he knew what was going on behind the scenes.

“SUU’s a great place, but so is BYU,” Sorensen said. “I told Joe, ‘If they want you to be there, by all means, go to BYU.’”

When SUU released Joe from his commitment, it allowed BYU “to be a little bit more aggressive in our recruiting and talk about where we see him fitting,” Lamb said. “At that point, it was Ty’s evaluation that was most important and where he saw Joe’s future at BYU.”

Not long before Signing Day 2017, everything came together. Joe Critchlow would be a Cougar quarterback.

It was an unexpected development. Even those who follow BYU football recruiting religiously didn’t see this one coming.

Meanwhile, on Signing Day, it was business as usual for Elder Critchlow in Montreal.

“Joe was oblivious about all the hoopla,” his dad said. “He knew that he would be part of the BYU signing class but did not receive all the news and festivities until the following Monday when we wrote him.”

Right now, nobody knows how things will work out for Critchlow at BYU. Sorensen had his own fleeting experience in Provo, at a place known as The Quarterback Factory. Detmer, the 1990 Heisman Trophy winner at BYU, is going to give him a chance.

“I was impressed with his football mind. He understands the game. He has a quick release,” Detmer said. “He’s played under center and in the gun. I talked to (former BYU quarterbacks coach and current Virginia quarterbacks coach) Jason Beck at the coaches convention. They had him in their camp (at BYU) and they liked him and Wilstead. They ended up going with Wilstead instead of Critchlow but both guys they really liked. Now we have the opportunity to bring (Critchlow) in and let him compete for it.”

BYU offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, who has exchanged emails with Joe Critchlow in the mission field but who has never met him in person, has been impressed with his football savvy, quick release, maturity and ability to run a pro-style offense. Photo credit: Nick Wagner, Deseret News

Sorensen, who’s also forged a friendship with Mangum, is eager to follow Joe’s BYU career. He can’t predict the future, but he believes Joe will thrive in Provo.

“The type of kid Joe is, he’ll be ready to go,” Sorensen said. “Within that short time after I met him, and having played the quarterback position myself, you can tell quickly certain attributes and characteristics that a guy has that they’ll get it. Joe’s that guy. He’ll be a fantastic quarterback and I hope things work out for him at BYU. The moment won’t be too big for him. He’ll be prepared. He’ll be ready to compete. That’s all you can ask for, a chance to compete. The coaches want him to be there, which is the most important thing.”

Sorensen recognizes all the things that had to fall into place for Joe Critchlow to end up at BYU.

“It’s crazy,” he said. “His dad mentioned to me that who knows if all this would have happened if I hadn’t contacted them. I don’t know that I played a huge part in this, but I think he looked more favorably at SUU after we met. (The Critchlows) might not have considered SUU. And if Joe hadn’t considered SUU, he wouldn’t have been linked with coach Lamb. Now Lamb’s at BYU. It’s weird how small things have made a big difference. It’s come full circle now. Look how good things have panned out for him. He’s at the right school, he’s going to be working under some fantastic coaches in Ty Detmer and the rest of the staff there. When it’s all said and done, they’ll all be happy with the way the process played out.”

As far as the Critchlows are concerned, everything has happened for a reason, and Joe has ended up where he belongs.

“I really do think it was a blessing,” Critchlow said. “Joe’s always been a faithful kid, and he’s stayed strong through this whole process. My wife and I pinch ourselves. As a kid, Joe has had a BYU flag signed by Ty Detmer hanging in his room. He dreamed to someday follow in his footsteps, but it is a dream come true to actually play for him and walk side by side in his footsteps at BYU.”