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Zach Wilson and the NFL draft: Even as a youngster, former BYU QB could sling the football

Barring a huge surprise, New York Jets will take former Corner Canyon High star with the No. 2 pick in Thursday’s NFL draft in Cleveland

Quarterback Zach Wilson tosses the ball during BYU pro day in Provo on Friday, March 26, 2021.
Quarterback Zach Wilson tosses the ball during BYU pro day in Provo on Friday, March 26, 2021. Wilson is expected to be the second player taken in the 2021 NFL draft, which begins Thursday, April 29, in Cleveland.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

CLEVELAND — Zach Wilson has developed into an elite quarterback, which is why the BYU signal-caller will be picked high Thursday in the NFL draft, perhaps as high as No. 2 overall to the New York Jets when the first round is held here near the shores of Lake Erie.

Nobody associated with the fast-rising phenom since he was a Pop Warner player — in most of Utah it is called Ute Conference football — can truthfully say they saw it coming, but many people recognized the kid’s otherworldly arm talent from the time he put on a uniform in the Jordan program south of Salt Lake City.

“People were talking about his arm, and how he could really sling it, long before he got to high school,” his high school coach at Corner Canyon, Eric Kjar, told the Deseret News in 2019. “Everybody knew about Zach Wilson.”

One of those people was Darren Milne, father of Wilson’s favorite target last season at BYU, Cougars receiver Dax Milne. A former BYU baseball player who was selected in the 19th round of the 1992 MLB draft by the Detroit Tigers, Darren Milne was an assistant coach in the Bingham program for five years.

“Zach was always the kid we would have to gameplan against, with his arm, from 8 years old all the way to 12, all those Little League years,” Darren Milne said. “He even had a great arm back then, and we would have to tell our kids to watch out, because this kid could throw it better than any other quarterback we had ever faced in all those five years.”

Wilson, who was mostly coached by his father, former University of Utah defensive lineman Mike Wilson, while growing up, told the Deseret News last December that Zach was only the backup quarterback when he started playing at age 7.

Wilson tells a humorous story about how his first introduction to football was going against a youngster named Justin Cobley “who weighed something like 200 pounds” in a hitting drill.

“I was scared to death of getting clobbered by that kid,” Wilson said. “That’s probably my first memory of playing football, at such a young age.”

The Wilson kids from left to right: Issac, Micah, Whitney, Zach and Josh.
Deseret News Archives, Wilson family

Wilson won the job when he was 8, and has been a backup only twice since, both times for half a season — his sophomore year at Corner Canyon and his freshman year at BYU. Because the Jets traded away primary 2020 starter Sam Darnold, Wilson could quite likely be New York’s opening-day starter next fall.

Darren Milne said Wilson’s talent was apparent from the beginning.

“The way he throws the ball is just so natural, and it was so noticeable at such a young age,” Milne said. “We saw him overtake the starter at Corner Canyon midway through his sophomore year, which was no surprise to me.”

Wilson graduated from Corner Canyon early, in December 2017, so he could participate in BYU’s spring camp the following March and attempt to win the starting job over Tanner Mangum, Joe Critchlow and others.

“He fully expected to be the starter his very first game,” Dax Milne said.

But it wasn’t to be. Coach Kalani Sitake, then-new offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and then-new quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick went with Mangum, erring on the side of experience.

Mangum led the Cougars to a 3-1 start in 2018, including a 24-21 upset of No. 6 Wisconsin in Madison, but the offense sputtered in back-to-back blowout losses at the hands of Washington and Utah State, and Wilson made his first career college start on Oct. 13, 2018, against Hawaii.

That was somehow fitting, because Mike Wilson grew up in Oahu and Zach’s middle name is Kapono, which means righteous in Hawaiian.

Wilson completed 16 of 24 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns in a 49-23 win, and the starting job was his — as long as he was healthy — until he declared for the draft a few weeks after earning MVP honors in the Boca Raton Bowl.

Coincidentally, the score in his final start was the same as in his first — 49-23 — as the Cougars walloped Central Florida in the rout that also turned out to be coach Josh Heupel’s last game with the Knights.

That Zach Wilson flourished after being given the chance didn’t surprise Darren Milne, who saw it coming three years prior. Milne says he went to a spring practice in 2018 and was watching his son catch passes from all the QBs when he got a text from Mike Wilson, who wasn’t there, asking how the QBs were looking.

“I liked all the quarterbacks, but I just said, ‘Mike, it is obvious: Zach has stood out from all those older guys from the beginning,’” Milne said. “I told him this: ‘It was just a matter of him getting his chance, and once he sees the field, he is not coming off, once he gets his shot.’

“And that’s exactly what happened,” Milne continued. “So, we are all super proud of Zach and what he has done, and the opportunity he has now. I am one of his biggest fans.”

Tre Ofahengaue was coaching a traveling 7-on-7 all-star team called the Pink Outlaws — named to honor the tragic death of former BYU star Reno Mahe’s daughter, Elsie — when he was approached by Mike Wilson prior to Zach’s junior season at Corner Canyon.

Corner Canyon’s Zach Wilson (1) runs the ball against Skyridge in Corner Canyon’s homecoming game in Draper, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016.
Corner Canyon’s Zach Wilson runs the ball against Skyridge in Corner Canyon’s homecoming game in Draper, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. Five years later Wilson is expected to be taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft this week.
Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

The Wilson family had moved from Jordan’s boundaries to Corner Canyon’s boundaries before Zach’s sophomore year. Mike Wilson wanted to know if the Pink Outlaws would take his son in an effort to get Zach seen by more college coaches.

“I went and watched Zach throw,” Ofahengaue said. “The second throw, I watched him throw a back-shoulder fade, and I have never seen someone throw so accurately on that back-shoulder throw. The receiver was covered, and he just threw it perfectly. He was really small and skinny, maybe 150, 160 (pounds), I wanna say. But I liked his arm.”

At their next tournament, Wilson stepped in and got the team that included Dax Milne and current BYU receiver Brayden Cosper over the top.

“We played some of the best California, Florida, Arizona, Washington teams, and we beat them all,” Ofahengaue said. “Zach had three seconds to learn a play I would draw up on my little piece of scratch paper, and he would make it work. He was just different from the beginning.”

When Kjar got to Corner Canyon to coach, a year after Wilson arrived, he was “shocked” that Wilson wasn’t getting more college interest.

“If Zach was from California, he would have had every Pac-12 school offer him before he even went into his senior year,” Kjar said in November 2020.