Boise State coaches were livid, especially then-offensive coordinator Zak Hill, the man who had built a strong relationship with one of the Broncos’ most-prized recruits of their 2018 signing class, Zach Wilson.

It was the night of Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, when the phone call came from the hotshot quarterback from Corner Canyon High in Draper, Utah, telling Hill and head coach Bryan Harsin that Wilson was withdrawing his commitment to sign with BSU the following week.

The Boise State coaches immediately began texting and calling Corner Canyon coach Eric Kjar, demanding an explanation and pleading with Kjar, who had just completed his first season coaching Wilson, to get the prospect to reverse course.

“Kalani became obsessed with it. Those last few weeks, Kalani was on it constantly.” — former BYU recruiting coordinator Tevita Ofahengaue on the recruitment of QB Zach Wilson

“There was a lot of fallout from that decision,” Kjar said Tuesday afternoon, recalling those “crazy days” nearly three years ago. “Those guys were not happy. In fact, they were (ticked off) royally. It was tough on them, because they had stopped recruiting quarterbacks since Zach had committed back in April. He was going to be their guy. They were sure of it.”

Nine days later, a day after the official start of the early signing period, Wilson signed with BYU, concluding a frenzied two-week period in which the Cougars, and most notably head coach Kalani Sitake, “pulled out all the stops, did everything humanly possible, to get that kid to Provo,” according to former BYU tight end Tevita Ofahengaue, BYU’s recruiting coordinator at the time.

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“Kalani became obsessed with it,” said Ofahengaue, perhaps best known for being “Mr. Irrelevant” in the 2001 NFL draft, a title that goes to the last player selected. “Those last few weeks, Kalani was on it constantly.”

Ofahengaue left the program two months later, but agreed recently to pull back the curtain and describe how BYU was able to land the three-star recruit who is now a Heisman Trophy candidate midway through his junior season and preparing, ironically enough, to face Boise State in the most important game of his three-year career at BYU.

The No. 9 Cougars and No. 21 Broncos square off at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Albertsons Stadium with major postseason implications on the line for both programs, and Wilson solidly in the spotlight.

Why wait to offer Wilson?

It is well-documented that Wilson grew up cheering for the University of Utah, where his father Mike Wilson played, and attending the Utes’ summer football camps. Utah didn’t offer Wilson a scholarship because it already had a commitment from four-star quarterback Jack Tuttle from the class of 2018, and most schools try to avoid signing more than one QB per recruiting cycle.

A similar question is also frequently asked of BYU coaches: Why did they wait so long to offer Wilson?

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Ofahengaue said it was largely due to the same reason Utah didn’t pull the trigger on Wilson — the Cougars already had a pledge from a three-star prospect, Zadock Dinkelmann of Somerset, Texas, who also happened to be then-offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s nephew. 

Often, coaches promise recruits that if they commit, they will stop recruiting their position. Ofahengaue doesn’t know if that promise was ever made to Dinkelmann. It was more about the logjam at QB, he said, and not because of his ties to Detmer.

“The hardest part about recruiting is the numbers,” Ofahengaue said. “You usually can have only four quarterbacks on scholarship. Sometimes only three. Once you hit that number, that’s it.”

The Cougars were also still in the running for four-star California QB Tanner McKee, but knew McKee was planning on a church mission before enrolling and would not immediately take up a scholarship.

McKee eventually signed with Stanford, served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Brazil, and recently returned home and joined the Cardinal. Had he not become disappointed with BYU’s program and especially its offensive inefficiency — he grew up cheering for the Cougars, he told the Deseret News while on his mission last summer for a lengthy piece on his mission in Paranagua, Brazil — when BYU went 4-9 in 2017, Wilson almost certainly wouldn’t be at BYU today.

“Recruiting is a complicated beast,” Ofahengaue said.

BYU also had dual-threat quarterback Jaren Hall scheduled to return from his mission in spring 2018, and coaches expected the two-sport star to make an immediate impact if he was ready. Hall won some games filling in for Wilson last year, but hasn’t suited up in 2020 yet due to a hip injury.

Ironically, the firing of a BYU legend — former Heisman Trophy winner Detmer — on Nov. 27 of 2017 is what may have opened the door for Sitake to go after Wilson, because Dinkelmann decommitted a week later, citing “unfortunate circumstances” in a Twitter post, but never directly mentioning the dismissal of his uncle.

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Dinkelmann’s departure from the big board of commits didn’t immediately create a quarterback opening, Ofahengaue said, because coaches had promised walk-on Joe Critchlow a scholarship, and it wasn’t certain then if QB Beau Hoge would agree to move to running back. Hoge eventually did move, prompting his father, former NFL star Merril Hoge, to publicly blast BYU coaches, using words such as “stupid, weird, bizarre, weird, smelly and dumb” to describe the switch.

Sitake replaced Detmer with offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes on Dec. 14, 2017, and it was no secret around the football offices that neither Grimes nor then offensive-consultant Aaron Roderick (who would later be named quarterbacks coach) were enthralled with the odds-on favorite to be the 2018 starter — Tanner Mangum, especially since the rising senior had ruptured his Achilles the previous month.

So they zeroed in on Wilson.

“I was really surprised that BYU came in because I thought Zach was pretty solid with Boise State,” said Kjar, the high school coach who has another top-notch QB this season who has even bigger offers than Wilson did, Jaxson Dart. “BYU hadn’t really recruited him at all. Then they came in and offered him, almost out of the blue. I honestly thought that it was too little, too late. I didn’t think he would give them the time of day. Like, ‘There is no way he will do it.’”

But he did.

More work needed

Even after he decommitted from Boise State, Wilson wasn’t dead-set on signing with BYU. Toward the end of October, he received offers from Syracuse and Minnesota to go with the offers he had from Cal and Oregon State the previous month.

“BYU hadn’t really recruited him at all. Then they came in and offered him, almost out of the blue. I honestly thought that it was too little, too late. I didn’t think he would give them the time of day. Like, ‘There is no way he will do it.’” — Eric Kjar

Iowa and BYU jumped in with offers the first week of November, and Wilson was scheduled to make an official campus visit to Hawkeye Country the last weekend that official visits were allowed before the signing period was to begin Dec. 20.

He never made it to Iowa City.

Ofahengaue and Wilson’s father, Mike, both grew up in Oahu but went to rival high schools, then rival universities. Ofahengaue went to Kahuku High and BYU; Mike Wilson went to McKinley High and then Utah. Still, they knew each other well, partly because Ofahengaue worked on Kyle Whittingham’s staff in 2005 as assistant director of football operations.

“I talked to Mike a few days before they were supposed to go to Iowa, and I said, ‘Hey man, what if you just come to BYU for one day? Then you can still go to Iowa.’”

Corner Canyon’s Zach Wilson (passes the ball in Corner Canyon’s homecoming game against Skyridge in Draper, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. Wilson, the high-riding BYU quarterback, will face Boise State, the team he originally committed to out of high school, on Friday night. | Hans Koepsell, Deseret News

The Wilsons originally balked at the idea. Lisa Wilson, Zach’s mother, was still not happy that BYU took so long to become interested in her son, later telling the Deseret News in 2019, “They waited until the fourth quarter with one minute left and now they want to sign him?”

Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson wrote: “The pros: ‘A good education, a chance to play immediately, close to home.’ The cons: ‘We hate BYU.’”

Somehow, Sitake got the family to make the 30-mile drive to Provo.

“Zach ended up canceling the Iowa visit,” Ofahengaue said. “He stayed the whole weekend.”

A week later, he signed on the dotted line.

Wilson was graduating high school in December, having started that plan when he was a sophomore at Corner Canyon, but there were some minor issues getting him enrolled at BYU as a mid-year transfer. That’s why he didn’t sign on the day the early signing period began, instead turning in his national letter of intent the following day after a signing ceremony at his home in Draper.

“His parents wanted to make sure he was enrolled and everything was set before he signed anything,” Ofahengaue said.

Kjar said at the time BYU was “getting a steal,” and now as he prepares his undefeated team for a 6A quarterfinal game with Bingham on Friday, he’s proud of what Wilson has accomplished.

“I felt like he was very under-recruited,” Kjar said. “I was shocked when I got here that he hadn’t been recruited more. I think a lot of it was him being a quarterback from Utah, and just in my experience with kids I have had play for me, Utah quarterbacks get overlooked. … If Zach was in California, he would have had every Pac-12 school offer him before he even went into his senior year.”

‘Glad it all worked out’

Wilson spoke at length about his recruitment and his reasons for changing his mind, two years ago before his first college start, which happened to be against Boise State on Nov. 3, 2018. The Broncos won 21-16 when Wilson was tackled a few yards short of the goal line as time expired.

The bottom line, he has said, is that he wanted to play somewhere close to home so he could drive home once a week for Sunday dinners and the like. He reiterated last week that he has no regrets.

Wilson did recall telling two of his best friends growing up, former Bingham High receivers Dax Milne and Brayden Cosper, who are now at BYU, that they should join him in Boise after he committed to Hill and Harsin.

“Dax was thinking about coming here, and Brayden Cosper was already committed here, and I was committed to Boise State, and I was trying to get them to decommit, saying ‘You guys don’t want to go to BYU. That’s not where you want to be, and I remember Brayden telling me, ‘Dude, I promise you, wait until you talk to coach Kalani, you are going to be here at BYU.’”

Then Wilson added: “I guess Kalani talked me into it.”

That’s how Ofahengaue, Kjar and Milne remember it, too.

“Kalani worked his magic,” Ofahengaue said.

“Kalani probably made the difference,” Milne said, later adding that he remembered when Wilson committed to Boise in April of 2017 and talked Milne into attending BSU’s football camp that summer.

“I am glad it all worked out,” said Milne, who has emerged as Wilson’s favorite target in 2020, along with fellow junior Gunner Romney.

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It has actually worked out well for Boise State, too.

A month after getting spurned by Wilson, the Broncos got a commitment in January 2018 from quarterback Riley Smith of Jacksonville, Florida, who is now listed as a tight end on their roster. But in May 2018, Harsin landed four-star prospect Hank Bachmeier of Murrieta, California, and Bachmeier earned the starting job as a freshman in 2019.

“That’s part of recruiting,” Harsin said before the BYU-Boise State game in 2018 about Wilson’s sudden change of heart in 2017. “There are guys that we have played against that we recruited. I wouldn’t say every game, but quite a few games. … It works both ways. No, it isn’t an awkward deal.”

But it started with a very awkward phone call.

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