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Dick Harmon: For Zach Wilson, Aleva Hifo, early connection during BYU's fall camp was moment of truth

PROVO — It was a moment that made Aleva Hifo and Zach Wilson laugh.

Receiver/QB chuckles.

Shelved all winter, sidelined for spring practice, they’ve had half a year of post-surgical rehabilitation on shoulders that underwent the same work to repair damaged labrums.

In other words, they waited. Felt as useless as police cats.

Then, on the first play of fall camp’s 11-on-11 drills, Wilson threw a 40-yard dart to Hifo, who caught it in stride and finished the rest of the 60-yard touchdown play jetting by a defender.

“Zach and I had a good laugh about it. We picked up right where we left off when he hit me for a long touchdown in the bowl game in Boise.”

The last time that kind of play happened in a structured setting, was a 70-yard touchdown bomb in Boise. It was a game where the Cougar offense was on fire and Wilson finished 18 for 18. Final score: BYU 49, Western Michigan 18.

Indeed. This had to be one of those moments — a combination sigh of relief, sliver of gratitude, and shot of confidence and appreciation for shared chemistry that still worked.

This isn’t the same scene as a year ago when BYU’s offensive players were trying to learn a new offense, where there was hesitation, gauging, grasping and familiarizing instead of acting in execution.

Now, the group is more mature.

The offensive line is assertive and believing. It’s an offense that bounced along some tough roads and forged relationships. Wilson’s leadership, getting hurt and working his tail off to make a comeback, has been at the front of it.

“I think it helps a lot that we're very close off the field,” said Hifo, a senior. “And that's something that I feel like a lot of players should have with their quarterback. Not only receivers, but with the running backs and the linemen. That's something that Zach does very well.

“He's a little diva off the field, but everybody knows he's younger. To everyone, he's well-respected. When we step on the field we all know that he's the offense.”

Receivers coach Fesi Sitake said Hifo, one of the fastest players on the team, is 100 percent back and has been since trainers cleared him weeks ago.

A year ago, Hifo was one catch from tying team leader Matt Bushman in receptions with 29 for the season. He had 358 yards receiving. He also had 138 yards rushing on 30 carries, mostly the jet sweep motion.

A year ago BYU’s offense averaged 27.2 points a game and managed 4,744 total yards, an average of 5.5 yards per play. This year, is this offense capable of amassing more than 5,000 total yards and push average yards per play north of 6? Could it average scoring more than 30 points a game?

Remember, a year ago Wilson started half the season. Wilson, Hifo and tight end Matt Bushman all played with damaged shoulders, and Squally Canada was only partially available as was Moroni Laulu Pututau. The offensive line was very young and Jeff Grimes was a rookie coordinator.

This fall, Wilson is a veteran with nine starters returning. Bushman is back and pushed by a bevy of talent including freshman Hank Tuipulotu, Darius McFarland and Joe Tukuafu. Rusher Lopini Katoa has legitimate help in senior transfers Ty’Son Williams and Emmanuel Esukpa. Pututau has not been cleared for contact yet, but it is expected.

Hifo gave recovering Wilson top grades this week. He’s made all the throws. Whatever physical challenges he’s going through with the complex recovery of his throwing motion in a very sensitive shoulder joint, he’s earned A’s and B’s, says Hifo.

“He is definitely deserving of a high grade, considering where he is in his treatment and the surgery that he's gone through,” said Hifo. “He had surgery around February so he's probably about five to six months out. There aren’t a lot of quarterbacks that come back from that. It's very good for him.”

In Week 1 of fall camp, Wilson has obviously been aided by players around him who have experience.

“I feel like a lot of guys are understanding their assignments more,” said Hifo. “That's the biggest thing for us, our assignments. I feel like we're able to compete more completely and create more explosive plays.”

So, the police cats aren’t useless anymore.

The duo is back.

Said Hifo, “I feel like the guys are very close with the coaches implementing things in meetings and stuff. We have gotten to know each other more than just in football and kind of our family backgrounds. It helps us be able to look at the guy next to us and know that we’ve got each other’s back. That's perfect.”