PROVO — Redshirt freshman Jaren Hall is too focused, too centered and too excited about the task at hand to fully take in the significance of what will happen for him and Brigham Young University on Saturday when he starts at quarterback for the Cougars against South Florida.
Maybe later, Hall says.
The returned missionary from nearby Spanish Fork will become the first African American to start at quarterback for BYU in the nearly 100-year history of the football program at the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Hall is replacing sophomore starter Zach Wilson, who sustained a fractured thumb on his throwing hand in the Sept. 28 loss at Toledo and is out for an unspecified “window” of time that coach Kalani Sitake would not elaborate on Monday in his weekly press briefing.
Kickoff at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, is at 1:30 p.m. MDT and the game will be televised by the CBS Sports Network.
“It is surreal, just to be here, finally,” said Hall, appearing at the same press briefing. “Hopefully I take that all in, put it aside and get to work and own this position now.”
As he’s done in the past, Hall downplayed the trailblazing nature of his ascension to starting quarterback as the son of former BYU running back great Kalin Hall, who is African American, and Hollie Hall, who is white.
“I am very proud of my ancestors, very proud of my ethnicity and all the things that come with that,” said Hall, who completed three of six passes for 39 yards in relief of Wilson at Toledo. “So it is an honor and a privilege to be here and to be playing this sport at this wonderful university.”
Hall’s expected start in football’s most important position comes after almost 50 years to the day a group of Wyoming football players who would come to be known as the “Black 14” were kicked off the team by Cowboys coach Lloyd Eaton before facing BYU for threatening to wear black armbands to draw attention to the fact that the aforementioned faith did not allow black males to hold its priesthood. The ban was lifted in 1978.
BYU added its first African American football player in 1970, the year after the Black 14 protest, then-coach Tommy Hudspeth told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2009 before the 40th anniversary of the protest that changed the football trajectories of both schools.
Neither Hall nor Sitake were interested in delving into that past Monday.
“BYU is a very special school and there are individuals from different lifestyles who play into why it is so special,” Hall said when asked if his starting on Saturday marks progress for the private, conservative university. “I think that’s just part of the history of Brigham Young University and all the special things that come with it.”
Sitake said Hall’s race is not the reason he’s starting. It is because he earned the backup spot toward the end of last season, after Wilson had replaced senior Tanner Mangum as the Cougars’ starter and the offense adjusted to fit the two more athletic QBs’ strengths. Hall then got first-team reps in spring camp, as Wilson recovered from January shoulder surgery.
“I think it is awesome that you are seeing so many different types of quarterbacks (play college football), whether it is their (different) backgrounds or race or whatever is involved,” said Sitake, the country’s first head football coach of Tongan descent. “It has been 150 years now, and we have seen a lot of cool things happen. We have Polynesians playing quarterback, too, so a lot of crazy things are happening right now.”
Sitake called the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Hall a “legacy kid” who has a “cool connection” to the program because his father also “spilled blood on that field as well” for BYU.
“I think it is something he can just look back at and be proud of,” Sitake said. “His family should be proud of the things that they have done with their sons. This is Jaren’s time to shine and we are really excited for him.”
Earlier Monday, USF coach Charlie Strong told the Deseret News that Hall will be “tough to prepare for” because although he’s appeared in all five games, he’s thrown only seven passes.
“He is coming in and he’s replacing an unbelievable (talent),” Strong said. “When you look at their offense, they had a week off. … You can do a lot with a week off, and especially with your quarterback position. They have some really good coaches, so they will tailor it so they can adjust with their offense and it is not (a big change).”
BYU running back Emmanuel Esukpa, himself filling in for an injured star, Ty’Son Williams, echoed statements from other offensive players last week saying the team has all the confidence in the world in Hall.
“Jaren has always been a confident guy, in whatever he does — just like when he’s walking around in the locker room, or walking up to the line of scrimmage to make calls and adjustments,” Esukpa said. “He has always been ready to do whatever he needs to do to help the team win.”
Hall said that final series against Toledo did wonders to build his confidence, even if it ended in an incomplete pass.
“I think that was actually pretty good,” he said. “I think about it a lot, just being in there finally, the confidence it gave me knowing that I can go in and compete at the college level. It was good to be in there with the guys and feel the speed of an actual game.”
A game he will start in, no less.
Cougars on the air
BYU (2-3) at South Florida (2-3)
At Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (MDT)
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM