PROVO — When BYU coach Kalani Sitake first started talking to Jeff Grimes about the offensive coordinator opening on his staff in December 2017, Grimes asked him about the program’s quarterback situation.
“You don’t want to take a job as an offensive coordinator without knowing that,” Grimes recently recalled.
So Sitake went down the list of QBs on the roster — their strengths, their weaknesses. Then he told Grimes there was a local quarterback that he was recruiting that had originally committed to Boise State but had recently reopened his recruitment.
His name? Zach Wilson.
Grimes was intrigued.
“Actually, even before I agreed to take the BYU job, I watched Zach’s film. I was immediately impressed with his consistency in throwing the football. For me, with a quarterback, you look for a lot of things,” Grimes said. “Ultimately, from a physical standpoint, it was how consistently can he deliver the ball accurately? That’s your job as a quarterback — to distribute the football.
"How consistently can he put the ball where it needs to go on time? I was impressed with that. I was impressed with his ability to make all the different types of throws with accuracy, the short balls with touch, the intermediate throws on time. I was impressed with his athleticism and his ability to run with the ball and move in the pocket and create plays.”
After Grimes became BYU’s offensive coordinator, he began recruiting Wilson and discovered another distinctive trait — his confidence.
That confidence was on display as the fun-loving, "Karate Kid" headband-wearing Wilson started the Cougars’ final seven games last season.
As a true freshman, he led BYU to a 49-point onslaught in his debut as a starter against Hawaii, becoming the youngest QB to ever start a game at BYU. He hurdled a Northern Illinois defender then stared him down after a 5-yard gain, is known to wink at offensive linemen in the huddle before plays, and posted a perfect passing performance (18 for 18) against Western Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Wilson, 19, is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery on his throwing arm. Though he only started throwing again on June 1, he continues to exude confidence.
And Wilson’s teammates love the moxie and swagger he brings to the BYU offense.
“Zach has that mentality, when he’s on the field or in a football setting, he feels he’s the best and can be great,” said tight end Matt Bushman. “It’s nice to have a quarterback and a leader that has those characteristics. We’re all striving to have the confidence in ourselves. We know we can be great.
"We have tough opponents ahead of us. We have the potential to be just as good or better than the opponents we have coming up. The confidence he has in himself, some people might see it as, ‘He’s an 18-year-old and he’s too cocky.’ For us as players, those of us that are with him every day, it’s not a cocky feeling. He has this confidence about him. Most of us strive to have confidence in ourselves like that."
At a place like BYU, where many players have served two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how has Wilson, still a teenager, managed to command such respect from older teammates?
“Sometimes, when you’re hanging out with him outside of football, you’re like, ‘OK, I’m 23 and married and he’s 19.’ That shows,” Bushman said. “But when you’re playing football, you don’t think about those things.
"If there’s a quarterback that is making plays and has the accuracy that he has, you respect it right away. You want to fight and play for a guy like that. Once you saw what he can do, everyone bought into it and trusted it.”
“He’s got that natural confidence that some guys wear on their sleeve too much and it rubs people the wrong way. Not so with Zach,” Grimes said. “He has a natural air of confidence about him that doesn’t come across as arrogance. And he earned it by going out on the field and playing in difficult environments as a true freshman and showed what he’s capable of.
"And it's his work ethic — his willingness to put in time. I was reading an article about Peyton Manning and his teammates were talking about his leadership style. So many guys said they were willing to follow him because he worked harder than anyone else did. Zach’s the same way.”
Quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick appreciates Wilson's approach and his attitude.
“He has a really mature presence about him. It’s easy to forget how young he is when you talk to him and spend time with him,” he said. “His work ethic and the results he earned on the field was what first earned his teammates’ respect.
"Once he got into the position to be our quarterback, that’s when his maturity level really showed," Roderick continued. "This guy’s not just a punk kid right out of high school. He’s an old soul. He acts like he’s already been there and done that. He still has a lot to prove. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but I want him to keep improving.”
So where does Wilson’s confidence come from?
“My confidence is a growing-up thing. Believing is the first step to achieving anything,” he said. “I know how important that is in any aspect of life. I have a lot of confidence in my ability and a lot of that comes from the preparation. I’ve prepared for this moment my entire life in growing up. A lot of it comes from my parents, too.”
Another attribute that defines Wilson is his diligence in the film room. Wilson said he spends two hours a day watching film.
“Whether it’s me going over new plays, opponent preparation film work or even going through NFL tapes and looking for cool plays that I like," he said. "Trying to see Patrick Mahomes or Drew Brees or Tom Brady change their protections and how they manipulate defenders with their eyes.”
And he’ll critically examine his own performance and scrutinize how he could have done things better.
“I’ll watch a touchdown pass and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I could have done this so much better.’ That’s the mindset you have to have,” Wilson said. “You can never get complacent with how you’re playing.”
Two hours a day might be a modest estimate.
“For him, especially so because at 10:30 at night, if I text him, he’s probably more likely to be watching football than he would be playing a video game or watching Netflix,” Grimes said. “That’s probably not true for most guys his age.”
“He has a lot of confidence and he’s very diligent. I always tease him, ‘Do you have a life? Do you do anything but football?’ I’m glad he’s that way. It’s all day, 24/7, he’s doing something to be a better football player,” Roderick said. “He texts me all the time film clips of a play he likes or a play Drew Brees made or the way we can block a certain play.
"He loves football. Zach’s the kind of guy that is going to maximize whatever is available to him. There’s literally no limit to the amount of film he’ll watch and he’ll still find time to watch stuff on his own. He’s that guy. He’s been watching tons of film.”
What does Roderick want to see from Wilson in his second season directing the offense?
“I want him to throw zero incompletions every game like in the bowl game,” Roderick joked. “I want to see more consistency in everything. He was playing really well at the end of last season. He had a few bumps along the way.
"An area of improvement we’ve talked about is being able to finish those close games. We were a couple of plays away from eight or nine wins. We were also a couple of plays away from four or five wins. We’ve been talking a lot about the little things it takes to close out a close game — getting a touchdown in the red zone instead of a field goal.”
After the 2018 season, Grimes met with the offensive players, including Wilson. Grimes asked Wilson what he felt he needed to focus on going into next season.
"He looked at me and said, ‘What do you think I need to work on?’ Sometimes a player might say that, thinking that’s what the coach wanted to hear. But not in his case. He really wanted to know,” Grimes said. “With Zach, one thing that comes naturally is learning about the game. He’s more than made up for his missed time (with the shoulder injury) by watching more film and studying the game at a higher level. Just naturally from Year 1 to Year 2, you’ll have a greater knowledge of our system and our opponents and of the game in general.”
Wilson will continue to rely on his confidence and diligence to carry him as he looks to take himself, and the BYU offense, to another level this fall.
“He’s a smart guy to begin with but he’s really growing in his understanding of the game — pass protections, defenses. It’s one thing to know the coverage, it’s another thing to know what all 11 defenders are trying to do every play,” Roderick said. “Then it’s another thing to know what all 11 guys on your team and the defense are doing. That’s when quarterbacks start to reach a coach’s level. I’m not saying he’s there yet, but he’s on his way.”