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Life as a true freshman QB: What Zach Wilson had to accomplish, and sacrifice, to enroll early at BYU

Editor's note: Eighth in an occasional series exploring the pros and cons of starting a true freshman at quarterback, and the experiences of the six freshmen who started for BYU.

PROVO — From the time Zach Wilson was a youngster, he knew the path he wanted to follow.

It required some planning.

Wilson, who turns 19 in August, had his sights on being a top-level quarterback and play in college. That’s why as a sophomore at Corner Canyon High, he started taking difficult classes with the idea that by the time he was a senior, he’d be able to graduate early and enroll in college, midway through his senior year.

During his junior and sophomore years, he said he never took any "fun classes with my friends." Instead, he took required classes toward graduation.

“Classes that people normally take as a senior, I took as a junior," he said. "I got them all done with.”

Zach Wilson (1) runs the ball as Skyridge and Corner Canyon High Schools face off in the Corner Canyon Homecoming game in Draper, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016.
Zach Wilson (1) runs the ball as Skyridge and Corner Canyon High Schools face off in the Corner Canyon Homecoming game in Draper, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016.

Wilson had taken a cue from Austin Kafentzis, who left Jordan High early to enroll as a quarterback at Wisconsin several years ago. As it turned out, Kafentzis is now a safety at BYU.

Wilson joined the Cougars in January and they are teammates.

Of course, truncating a senior year means making sacrifices. He missed out on some school dances and he doesn’t talk to his longtime friends as much as he used to.

“A lot of my friends are taking fun classes and hanging out. It was best for me to come here to BYU and get bigger and stronger,” he said. “I’ve made a huge maturity jump and I’ve gotten better. It’s been huge. My college experience so far has been great. I loved high school but college is way better.”

Wilson’s parents signed off on their son starting college early but with a couple of stipulations. First, they wanted him to go to Senior Prom.

Well, Wilson went to prom — accompanied by two BYU cheerleaders.

“My friends were like, ‘Really? You brought two college girls with you?’” he recalled with a laugh. “‘You couldn’t have brought just one?’ Those girls are my really good friends. It was a last-minute thing. It got a lot of hype, for sure.”

Second, his parents wanted him to participate in commencement exercises with his senior class on June 6.

“The strength coaches (at BYU) aren’t too happy about that," Wilson said weeks before graduation. "I’ll be missing a workout.”

In high school, most of Wilson’s friends were 17 years old. Now, at BYU, most of those he hangs out with are 20 and older. Many are returned LDS Church missionaries.

During winter semester at BYU, Wilson took 12½ credit hours and geography was his toughest class. The most difficult transition for him was on the academic side, trying to balance college life with homework and spring football.

“Football I’ve always taken seriously. It jumps to another level. You’re extending your time with football even longer. You’re working on newer and harder things,” Wilson said. “Film study is way more in-depth and then you have all that schoolwork on top of that, which I didn’t do in high school. I got really good grades in high school but it was way easier. Here, you put in hours of homework and studying. I don’t know that I did that before.”

Has it been worth all the hard work and sacrifices to expedite his college career?

“The biggest thing is, you don’t want to waste any time. People don’t come here to play college football in three or four years,” Wilson said. “Especially the new generation coming up — everyone wants to play now. Enrolling early gives you that extra jump to play early. Coming to a place like BYU, where there’s an opportunity to play, is a place you want to enroll. Freshman quarterbacks want to go to a place they can play early.”

Freshmen aplenty

BYU has never started a season with a true freshman as the starting quarterback.

Could it happen someday? Could it happen this season? It’s a possibility.

In Provo, there’s a new offensive coordinator — Jeff Grimes — there’s a new offense, and there’s the sense of looking for a fresh start after a dismal 4-9 campaign and finishing near the bottom nationally in almost every statistical category.

Wilson is one of several quarterbacks vying to start in the Cougars’ season-opener Sept. 1 at Arizona.

BYU’s crowded quarterback room currently features Wilson and three other true freshmen — Baylor Romney, Stacy Conner and recently returned missionary Jaren Hall.

Some have wondered if Hall, or any of the other QBs, will switch positions.

“I hear that from reporters all the time. His intentions are to play quarterback,” said Hall’s dad, Kalin Hall, a former BYU star running back. “He’s only been a quarterback. He’s a pass-first guy that has an elite-level arm. If you need him to throw it 80 yards, he can do that. He can throw it with touch. He has accuracy and he understands offense. He just happens to be a guy that runs really fast. He’s going to play quarterback.”

Recently, BYU received a big commitment from another star QB, Jacob Conover, an Elite 11 participant who will serve a mission before enrolling in 2021.

‘I believe I can start’

Six true freshmen quarterbacks have started at least one game in BYU history and Wilson is looking to be No. 7 on that exclusive list.

“I’m sure every quarterback looks at it like that. Everyone thinks they can start,” he said. “I know the coaches are going to make a good decision. You’ve got to have that confidence in yourself. And I completely believe I can start here at BYU and have a successful season, too.”

Originally, Wilson committed to Boise State. But he de-committed and decided to re-open his recruitment. At the end of the 2017 season, BYU relieved Ty Detmer of his duties as offensive coordinator and ended up hiring Grimes, a longtime offensive line coach that most recently had been at LSU.

“Coach Grimes started talking to me the day he got hired, I think. He was texting me throughout the day,” Wilson recalled. “I’ve always been really close with (head coach) Kalani (Sitake). It was more than just football for me, though. It’s the academics here and staying close to my family. It was all really good for me.

"Boise State offered a lot of good things. They’re a really good team and I had a good opportunity to play early there as well. Talking to coach Grimes, I could tell he knew what he was talking about.

“No coach is ever going to promise you a starting spot,” Wilson continued. “But they definitely can promise you an opportunity. That’s all that I wanted. Besides that, I love the schedule we play here at BYU. It’s a good atmosphere, too.”

BYU’s multiple offensive schemes fit Wilson’s skill set.

“I like it a lot. Last year at my high school, we ran a lot of spread, shotgun stuff. My sophomore year we ran a lot of pro-style, under-center stuff,” he said. “Now it’s a mix of it all, just more complicated in college. What we do is very multiple and it fits me very well, being able to move around in the pocket and have drop-back, play-action, too.”

Evaluating Wilson

Two former BYU quarterbacks — that started as true freshmen — know all about Wilson.

“I actually know quite a bit about him, oddly enough. I’m part of the Elite 11 coaching staff,” said Jake Heaps, who runs the Russell Wilson Passing Academy. “I saw Zach in person at a regional last year in Oakland. I really liked what I saw from him. He was coachable. I really like him. When he committed to Boise State, I knew of him. I watched his tape. He’s got a good attitude about him.

"Zach’s a kid that BYU fans should be super excited about. He’s got a ton of talent, whether he plays now or later. The kid has tremendous upside," Heaps continued. "I’m excited to see how that coaching staff develops him and hopefully make him a great player for their program. He has the talent and tools. It’s a matter of putting in the work and letting him develop.”

BYU's Zach Wilson prepares to snap the ball during the Cougars' annual spring scrimmage, Saturday, April 7, 2018 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.
BYU's Zach Wilson prepares to snap the ball during the Cougars' annual spring scrimmage, Saturday, April 7, 2018 at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

John Beck also has spent time working with Wilson.

“He’s a young quarterback with a lot of potential. That’s awesome to see those guys at BYU,” Beck said. “Now you hope things can play out well for him. You don’t want to see a young kid thrown into a really bad situation. Putting a young player in a bad situation, that’s when you have got to be super resilient as a player in those situations.”

What feedback has Wilson received from Heaps and Beck?

“They give the same advice — don’t wait. You’ve got to work for it now,” Wilson said. “Your opportunity is now. It’s whoever puts their mind to it and wants to go to work are the ones who have the confidence and believe they can play at 18 years old with a bunch of people who are 21, 22 years old.”

Football life

With winter semester and spring ball in the rearview mirror, Wilson is enjoying the calmer atmosphere of spring and summer on campus.

But that doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy.

Wilson took only one class during spring term, The Eternal Family. The rest of his day consists of lifting and running sessions in the mornings, throwing with receivers, another lifting session in the afternoon.

“It’s like a full-time job,” Wilson said. “I love that.”

His focus is on putting in the time in order to reach his potential.

“The ones who work the hardest are the ones that will show up the most,” he said. “That’s my main goal going into fall camp — learn the offense and control the things I can control. I want to learn the offense more than everybody else, make sure I’m lifting more than everybody else, throwing more than everybody else.”

Part of preparing for the upcoming season is building rapport and chemistry with the receivers.

“I’ve been getting with all of the receivers almost every single day since the day spring ended,” Wilson said. “It’s not just throwing, we go get food together. They come to my house on Sundays for dinner. We have a really good connection. The receivers are some of my best friends on the team. That’s honestly what makes it so comfortable for me, being able to tell guys way older than I am kind of what to do. I’ve gotten close to them. If I didn’t know them, you’d back down a little bit. I’ve become close to them and it makes it easier.”

Head start

Wilson is living with junior QB Beau Hoge, who is also vying for the starting job. “He’s like my big brother,” Wilson said, adding that he has good relationships with the other starting hopefuls — senior Tanner Mangum, sophomore Joe Critchlow and freshman Baylor Romney. “I love hanging out with all of them,” he said.

During spring practices, BYU quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said that Wilson didn’t carry himself like a typical freshman, fresh out of high school.

“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself. Some people might say that’s cocky. You try to stay humble but the best thing you need to have is confidence in yourself,” Wilson said. “I think I do a pretty good job of going out there and thinking, ‘I can play with all of these kids.’ It kind of translates to you being able to make plays that aren’t like typical freshmen.”

Between now and August, Wilson is going to continue to work.

“I can’t wait for the season. I’m glad I’m here,” Wilson said. “I can’t imagine how far I’ve come from January until now. Some of my friends aren’t starting college until this summer. I'm glad I got here early. I can’t imagine having to make that all up.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated Jacob Conover was an Elite 11 finalist. Conover was a participant but not a finalist.