Cade Fennegan is tired of laying low.
You could say the BYU quarterback has been flying “under the radar” or has been “under cover” or kept “under wraps.” But he’s getting ready to come out from under a cloak of obscurity, unveil his skill set and compete for playing time.
Baylor Romney’s departure has created an opening among BYU’s ‘Fab Four’ with quarterbacks Jaren Hall, Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters returning for spring drills that begin next Monday.
After sitting around last season like the fifth Beatle, practicing but not playing, the Boise State transfer is eager to join the band and earn his place on stage at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The soundtrack to his journey was recorded long before he was born.
“A Hard Day’s Night”
When Boise State quarterback Jack Sears suffered a concussion during the Broncos’ second possession against No. 9 BYU on Nov. 6, 2020, Fennegan’s life took an unexpected turn.
Just two weeks earlier, he was on the sideline holding a clipboard as Hank Bachmeier and Sears played ahead of him. But with injuries to both players, Fennegan was called into action.
Not only was the 6-foot-2, 180-pound freshman surprised to be taking the field for his most significant downs since high school, he was running out there to face BYU.
“It was surreal,” Fennegan said. “(BYU) is the team I grew up dreaming about playing for and now I’m playing against them.”
Fennegan, four months removed from a church mission and without any practice reps during the week, stepped under center and quickly completed his first three Division I passes. He also ran twice as No. 21 Boise State marched downfield and kicked a field goal.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he said. “The only thing I could process at the time was telling myself, ‘All right, just go ball out. That’s all I could think of.”
No doubt his parents, Garth and Amy, both BYU alums, wondered if this was start of one of those special nights for a quarterback who was spurned by his dream school only to respond by beating them on national television?
The answer came quickly and without reservation: Not tonight.
Zach Wilson and the Cougars scored the next 38 points to build a 45-3 lead.
Fennegan watched Wilson throw for 360 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He also saw Tyler Allgeier gallop for 123 yards and two TDs.
Much to his disappointment, the team he grew up cheering for, was dismantling the team he was playing for.
“Nobody likes getting beat, especially in that manner, and this is my debut,” he said. “I got with my offensive coordinator. We made some adjustments and simplified some things.”
Then the fourth quarter happened.
With nothing to lose, Fennegan started playing to win.
Twice he connected on bombs to star receiver Khalil Shakir. The first touchdown was 52 yards. The second went for 47. Fennegan showed off his mobility, decision-making and arm strength.
When he was through, Fennegan’s 182 passing yards and two touchdowns hardly made a dent in BYU’s 51-17 victory, but it did leave an impression — on the Cougars’ offensive coordinator.
“I could have handled that loss in a lot of ways. I could have been upset with BYU, my team and myself. I could have been mad at the world. I took it as gracefully as I could and tried not to be a sore loser. That’s how you have to be in life. You never know who is going to be your next boss. It’s good to never burn bridges.” — Cade Fennegan after loss to BYU in 2020
“It was a bleak situation that he came into and we all were impressed with how hard he competed,” said BYU offensive coordinator and quarterback’s coach Aaron Roderick. “He made some plays and did his best to keep the game interesting. We were impressed with his athleticism.”
After the game Fennegan visited with Wilson and Conover, both quarterbacks he came to know through the recruiting process. He also visited with the BYU coaches — the same coaches that passed on him in 2017.
“I could have handled that loss in a lot of ways,” he said. “I could have been upset with BYU, my team, and myself. I could have been mad at the world. I took it as gracefully as I could and tried not to be a sore loser. That’s how you have to be in life. You never know who is going to be your next boss. It’s good to never burn bridges.”
Little did he know at the time, but Fennegan’s “Hard Day’s Night” would pay off down the road.
“Ticket to Ride”
After appearing in three games during the 2020 season, as Bachmeier and Sears recovered from injuries, Fennegan started mulling his options — stay in Boise or move on.
Broncos coach Bryan Harsin, who signed Fennegan, had already moved on to a new job at Auburn.
“I felt I needed a change, both for football and for my life,” Fennegan said. “Boise State was understanding and there were no hard feelings.”
Once in the transfer portal, without any idea of where his future might lead, Fennegan received a direct message via twitter from Roderick.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Fennegan said. “I was glad they saw the (Boise State) game I played against them as more of a positive than a negative. They recognized there was some talent there and some persistence. I didn’t give up in that game. I just kept chugging along.”
Further discussions led to a scholarship offer and a special call home.
In recalling that conversation, this is how Fennegan remembers it.
“I just got off the phone with coach Roderick,” Fennegan said to his father, Garth, a former BYU football player himself (1990-93). “He likes me. He says he’s excited for the future, and he offered me a scholarship!”
“Man, that’s awesome kid,” Garth said with a jubilant laugh. “I’m proud of you buddy! How do you feel?”
“I feel pretty great right now!” Fennegan shot back.
“Just go enjoy it,” said Garth, with his wife Amy singing “Rise and Shout” in the background. “Football is fun. It’s something you are good at, and you can be as good as you want to be.”
Fennegan completed the transfer to BYU last July. He redshirted the 2021 season and because the 2020 year at Boise State did not count against his eligibility due to the pandemic, Fennegan has four years to play at BYU.
“Talent-wise, he’s right there with everybody,” Roderick said. “I brought him here because he’s good. He is a very underrated athlete. He can run and make plays with his feet, and he has a quick release. He needs to get bigger (187 pounds). He has the frame (6-2). He just needs time in the program and in the weight room.”
Fennegan received his “Ticket to Ride” out of Boise and he rode it to Provo.
“The Long and Winding Road”
Being a high school football star in the Lone Star State is not easily done. Texas football operates by its own standards. But at Woodrow Wilson High in Dallas, Fennegan is the standard.
The three-year starter (2015-17) rewrote the Wildcats’ record book for the most wins (26), career passing yards (6,454) and career touchdown passes (94). He also rushed for 18 touchdowns.
“At the time I didn’t realize the records I was setting,” Fennegan said “I didn’t even know I was about to break the record for all-time wins until midway through my senior year.”
Fennegan’s coach and offensive coordinator pulled him into their office after practice one day to clue him in.
“They said, ‘We don’t want you to focus on this, but you are a game away from becoming the winningest quarterback in Woodrow Wilson history,’” Fennegan recalled. “I was just having fun.”
Winning at Woodrow Wilson is a big deal. The Wildcats have been playing football since 1928. It’s most famous football alum, Davey O’Brien, has his own award honoring the nation’s best college quarterback — won by former Cougars Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer (twice).
“Talent-wise, he’s right there with everybody. I brought him here because he’s good. He is a very underrated athlete. He can run and make plays with his feet, and he has a quick release. He needs to get bigger (187 pounds). He has the frame (6-2). He just needs time in the program and in the weight room.” — Aaron Roderick on Cade Fennegan
So where was BYU in Fennegan’s recruitment? The Cougars were justifiably distracted by another senior prospect at nearby Corner Canyon High in Draper.
While Fennegan was tearing up Texas in 2017, Zach Wilson was dominating Utah. Wilson decommitted from Boise State in December to sign with BYU.
“We got Zach and Baylor (Romney) that year and Jaren (Hall) was still young,” Roderick said. “I loved Cade’s game, but it didn’t make sense for us at the time to add another quarterback, so we backed off.”
One month after Wilson committed to BYU, Fennegan signed with North Texas before leaving on his church mission to Rosario, Argentina.
While in Argentina, Graham Harrell, the offensive coordinator at North Texas, took the same position at USC. Harrell had signed Fennegan at UNT and after his departure for Los Angeles he called Cade’s dad with an unusual request.
“He asked if Cade could record some video of him throwing the football and send it to them?” Garth said. “So, on one of his preparation days there in Argentina, Cade went to a field threw passes to his companion and a few other missionaries who were catching them in their white shirts and ties. He sent the video to us, and we got it to USC.”
As time passed without any feedback from the Trojans, Fennegan committed to Boise State, who was also pursuing him while on his mission. Days later, USC called again after losing one of their top recruiting prospects to Baylor. Head coach Clay Helton spoke with Garth and extended an offer for his son.
“I called Boise State and said we weren’t ready to sign because USC had offered a scholarship,” Garth said. “Then I called Cade and told him to pray about it and decide what he wanted to do.”
“I took a week to think and pray about it. The following p-day I made the decision to honor my commitment to Boise State and turn down USC.” — Cade Fennegan
“I took a week to think and pray about it,” Fennegan said. “The following p-day I made the decision to honor my commitment to Boise State and turn down USC.”
Fennegan returned home in August 2020 in time to start fall camp with the Broncos.
“Timing is everything,” he said. “I’m not sure why (BYU) didn’t recruit me out of high school, but I eventually got here, and that’s all that matters.”
“The Long and Winding Road” from Dallas to Argentina to Boise finally led him to Provo, where his parents’ journey began 30 years prior.
“The winner of the 1990 Heisman Award, whose name is Ty Detmer! Ty Detmer of BYU! Ty Detmer!” said Peter Lambos, President of the Downtown Athletic Club on Dec. 1, 1990. The award highlighted a season that saw BYU upset No. 1 Miami in Provo and Garth Fennegan soaked it all in from the sideline as a redshirt transfer quarterback from Clemson.
“Ty is the smartest football mind I have ever been around,” Garth said. “To watch him in our meetings and see him going tit-for-tat with coach (Norm) Chow — it was just a lot of fun to watch. He was always three steps ahead of the defense and he audibled a lot more than he got credit for.”
Garth’s football career didn’t go as he had hoped, but off the field, his life was changed forever. While at BYU, he met his future wife, Amy, through a roommate.
“She was in summer school and I was in two-a-days,” Garth said. “Amy had no interest in meeting football players. But she eventually came by, and we met, and it went from there.”
Garth converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during his junior year. He and Amy were married after graduation.
Twenty-four years later, as BYU’s offensive coordinator, Detmer paid a recruiting visit to the Fennegans in Dallas.
“Ty was really up front with us. He came and looked at Cade. He told us he had offered his nephew (Zadock Dinkelmann) and Tanner McKee and wasn’t planning to offer another scholarship.”
When Detmer was let go at the end of the 2017 season, Wilson made the switch to BYU and Dinkelmann and McKee went elsewhere.
“I thought Cade might have a chance (with BYU) with all of that movement. It just didn’t work out,” Garth said. “Was I disappointed, sure. But I believe things happen for a reason.”
Four years later, after numerous twists and turns, his boy is preparing for his first spring practice in Provo.
“It’s a very sentimental thing for me,” Cade said. “I’m walking where my dad walked. It’s a cool feeling.”
“Yesterday” is history. So are all of the what-ifs and whys that can paralyze progress and individual growth. For the Fennegans, what matters now is what happens next.
“Here Comes the Sun”
With his redshirt year over, and his assignment of running the scout team complete, Fennegan looks to take his first snaps as a BYU quarterback next Monday when the Cougars open spring practice.
“Coach Roderick says it best. He wants all of his guys to want to play,” said Fennegan, who expects to be medically cleared for spring practice after an undisclosed injury. “You don’t want a quarterback who doesn’t want to play. I’ll be ready to go.”
Fennegan watched Hall closely last season, taking mental notes along the way. He knows this offseason is the time to battle to be his backup.
“I’ve taken the opportunity to learn from him and the way he approaches the game,” he said. “He’s just an intelligent quarterback with how he watches film and breaks down defenses.”
BYU is on the heels of its second straight 10-win season and top-20 national ranking. The combined 21-4 record over the last 24 months is among the best in college football and most of the 2021 offensive production is back for another year.
Not only does BYU face a challenging schedule, but it also has just one more year to prepare for the Big 12 when competition begins in 2023.
Fennegan isn’t fazed by the competition in the quarterback room.
Roderick has long preached about filling the quarterback room every year and in his words, “may the best man win.” Fennegan may be flying under the fan radar, but he is very much in Roderick’s plans.
“Cade can do a lot with his feet,” Roderick said. “We don’t run the quarterback a lot, but we run a little and we move the pocket a lot. He can buy time and he can escape. He has a little swagger to him and he’s very confident.”
Fennegan didn’t come to BYU to be the ‘fifth Beatle.’ He wants to be on stage, play in the band and deliver the hits. And after all the waiting and relocating, the dawn of a new day has finally arrived — and “Here Comes the Sun.”
For a Beatles fan, this star from the Lone Star State couldn’t be happier.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.