How and where Zach Wilson started turning heads — even before arriving at BYU
Corner Canyon High coach Eric Kjar has coached a number of high-caliber QBs, but he saw something about Wilson that ‘stuck out’ even before then
With the NFL draft approaching and Zach Wilson all the rage these days, Eric Kjar has been asked the same question on several occasions: Did he think Wilson was NFL-bound when he coached him at Corner Canyon High.
Kjar, who with little fanfare has become the state’s quarterback guru, explains that he didn’t consider such a thing at the time; he had never coached a future NFL quarterback so he had no one for comparison. All he knew was that Wilson had rare ability.
“Talent-wise, he’s different than pretty much every kid I coached,” says Kjar. “The things he could do, his throwing ability, his accuracy. Those things set him apart.”
That’s revealing in itself for a coach who has a history of producing prolific quarterbacks.
Kjar recalls a play against Timpview High in which Wilson was rolling out to his right when he had to reverse field because of a fierce rush from that side. Now he was rolling left — the opposite direction for which the play had been designed, putting him out of position to connect with receivers, especially for a right-handed quarterback. Without even squaring his shoulders and hips — which is where the power of a throw comes from — he flipped the ball 50 yards downfield.
“I was like, dang!” says Kjar.
There was a similar play against Highland. Rolling right he found a tackler in his face. Again, there was no time to square up, to set his feet and hips, but it didn’t matter. He threw the ball 55 yards.
Both passes were similar to a throw he made during a recent pro day workout in Provo that caused such a buzz in the national media. Like Brett Favre and Patrick Mahomes, he has arm strength that allows him to make throws most can’t make.
Later this month, Wilson, who completed his junior season at BYU in the fall, is expected to be taken with the second pick of the NFL draft (by the New York Jets) — higher than any BYU player ever, including all those famous quarterbacks the school has produced — Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Marc Wilson, etc. (Young was the No. 1 pick of a special supplemental draft that was created to select players that had signed with teams in the United States Football League, which folded in 1985).
“I’m so excited for Zach,” says Kjar. “It’s awesome. He’s a really hard worker and he’s super passionate about what he’s doing, and now to see things pay off for him. ... It’s been tough for him at times. The recruiting process. The injuries at BYU. Now he’s realizing his dream.”
Kjar coached Wilson when the latter was a freshman at Jordan High. Wilson transferred to Corner Canyon the following year, and, as fate would have it, Kjar became the head coach at Corner Canyon for Wilson’s senior season. It was a good union. Wilson is only one of a long list of players who have become outstanding quarterbacks under Kjar. He is the LaVell Edwards of Utah’s prep scene, a man who has developed quarterbacks and unstoppable offenses at Jordan and Corner Canyon.
A three-sport high school star in Kemmerer, Wyoming, Kjar played quarterback at Wayne (Nebraska) State before a series of concussions forced him to switch to wide receiver. He began coaching in 2005 at Jordan and four years later became head coach, winning one state championship.
He took over as the Corner Canyon head coach in 2017 and won three more state championships the next four years. During his 16 years on the sideline, Kjar has produced nine first-team all-state quarterbacks, all of whom played or are still playing Division I football. Their ranks include three Gatorade Players of the Year, four state MVPs and one national Gatorade Player of the Year.
Kjar’s quarterbacks appear on all of the all-time top-10 lists for passing — three of the top 10 for career completions (Austin Kafentzis, Jaxson Dart, Alex Hart); two of the top three in season passing yards (Dart, Hart); two of the top five in career passing yards (Kafentzis, Dart); four of the top 10 in passing yards per game (Hart, Drew Lisk, Dart, Kafentzis); two of the top nine for single-season touchdown passes (Dart, Hart); three of the top nine in career TD passes (Dart, Kafentzis, Cole Hagen).
How prolific are his quarterbacks? Two of his quarterbacks — Hart and Kafentzis — threw eight touchdown passes in a game, and three others — Dart, Lisk and Crew Wakley — threw seven touchdown passes in a game, with Wakley pulling off the feat twice. That’s six games of seven TD passes or more — or a total of 44.
Here’s a closer look at Kjar’s quarterbacks:
• Shawn Taylor (Jordan High, class of 2007) — Two-time first-team all-state. Finished his career ranked second on the state’s all-time list for total offense. Played for Southern Utah University.
• Alex Hart (Jordan High, class of 2010) — First-team all-state. Set five state records and two national records. Led the nation in passing yards and touchdown passes for 12 weeks. Played for Utah State.
• McCoy Hill (Jordan High, class of 2011) — First-team all-state. Played for BYU and Southern Utah.
• Austin Kafentzis (Jordan High, class of 2014) — Four-time first-team all-state. Two-time Utah Gatorade Player of the Year and 5A state MVP. Has his own Wikipedia page, even though his college career never panned out. Set 13 career records, including passing yards (13,079), rushing yards (6,942) and touchdowns (115). Became first player in the nation ever to set state records for both passing and rushing. Played for Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona Western and BYU.
• Drew Lisk (Jordan High, class of 2016) — First-team all-state. Led the state in total offense with the sixth highest total in state history at the time. Played for Utah.
• Crew Wakley (Jordan High, class of 2018) — Two-time first-team all-state — first as a junior during Kjar’s last year at Jordan, when he collected 4,900 yards and 50 TDs, and then as a senior, when he collected another 4,400 yards and 43 TDs. Plays for Utah State.
• Zach Wilson (Corner Canyon, class of 2018) — 5A state MVP. An ankle injury sidelined him for a couple of games and hampered the last few games of his senior year, all of which prevented him from putting up the gaudy numbers of some of Kjar’s other quarterbacks. The unbeaten Chargers lost in the semifinals of the state playoffs when Wilson was playing on the bad ankle — the only team not to win a state title since Kjar came to the school. That season, Wilson passed for 2,976 passing yards and 24 touchdowns, and rushed for 719 yards and eight TDs.
• Cole Hagen (Corner Canyon, class of 2020) — Two-time first-team all-state. 6A state MVP. Gatorade Player of the Year. He was 28-0 as a starting quarterback and averaged 359 yards per game passing. Won two state championships. Finished with 87 career touchdown passes. Signed with Yale.
• Jaxson Dart (Corner Canyon, class of 2021) — National Gatorade Player of the Year. Named Deseret News’ Mr. Football, first-team all-state, first-team Sports Illustrated All-America, and Max Preps national Player of the Year. Led the nation with 4,691 passing yards. Ran for 1,985 yards. Set a state single-season record with 67 touchdown passes (with a mere four interceptions). He’s participating in spring ball for USC. Led Corner Canyon to a 14-0 record, a state championship and a No. 9 national ranking.
Asked what he is doing to consistently produce such prolific quarterbacks, Kjar says, “The biggest thing we try to do is build a good team around him, and then we try to get him as many reps as we can, in practice and in games when they’re sophomores and juniors. And we teach them concepts and how to read (defenses) — pre- and post-snap reads — and to identify mismatches. We get them to understand why I’m calling a certain play.”
Wilson also received tutoring in all of the above from his father Mike, a former Utah defensive lineman who studied quarterbacking to mentor his son. Perhaps because of the injuries, Wilson’s recruitment came late, if at all (he was ignored by Utah and committed to Boise State, but, after a late rush by BYU, he enrolled with the Cougars).
“He was a kid who stuck out. He had the ability to run and throw and he had confidence. He’s always been confident, and that’s something you have to have.” — Corner Canyon coach Eric Kjar on early impressions of Zach Wilson
For his part, Kjar became aware of Wilson even before the latter was in high school, when he was in little league. “He was a kid who stuck out,” says Kjar. “He had the ability to run and throw and he had confidence. He’s always been confident, and that’s something you have to have.”
Like Wilson himself, Kjar has been inundated with calls from media members, including The Athletic and the NFL Network and various media affiliated with the New York Jets. He’s difficult to reach — he teaches classes, coaches track and football and he has daily driver’s-ed shifts. He admits he doesn’t return all of the calls.
“It’s just been too much,” he says. “I’ve gotten calls from national guys (media). Some I just let go. I haven’t called them back. Poor Zach. If they can’t get a hold of him, they call me to see if I’ll arrange to have Zach call them back. I know he’s getting blown up (with requests) all the time. I asked him, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Just do whatever you think.’ He’s such a nice kid that he would talk to anyone. I think his agent is controlling some of that now.”
The story within the Wilson story is Kjar himself. With Wilson set to be a high NFL draft pick and Dart and Wakley competing in spring practices at USC and Utah State, respectively, Kjar continues to make his mark as a coach.