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In Zach Wilson’s short BYU stay, he carved a few marks on school’s Mount Rushmore

One of BYU’s most accurate passers of all time, Zach Wilson’s departure for NFL dreams was expected after his 2020 performance

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) signs an autograph for a young fan after the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson signs an autograph for a young fan after the Boca Raton Bowl in Boca Raton, Fla., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. BYU won 49-23.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

How should Zach Wilson, the lifelong Ute fan, be remembered as a star quarterback at BYU?

A lot of words and plays come to mind.

Wilson was a gamer. A film rat, very kind and always available to fans, media and the community at large. He was extremely quotable, spoke his mind, was unabashed. He was confident as a banker. He was plugged in, anxious and eager to win and compete. He never backed down from a challenge.

He was gone too soon. He left at his BYU peak.

Even as a freshman, you could see his arm strength and accuracy. His pass efficiency numbers in games were always a step above what his predecessors tended to post, guys like Tanner Mangum and Taysom Hill.

The plays? Well, there were plenty.

Wilson finished his BYU career with 566 completions in 837 attempts for 7,652 yards and 56 touchdowns. His career accuracy, which has NFL scouts’ attention, was 67.6%. His career efficiency rating was 162, the best by a BYU quarterback.

That entire game in the 2018 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl when he went 18 for 18 as MVP was a Picasso in Cougar annals.

It was the threshold of what he’d do as a junior, two years later after an injury-plagued sophomore season when a post-surgery shoulder and ton of hard work enabled him to throw out a remarkable distinction. Even with a reshuffled 2020 schedule, Wilson is the most accurate quarterback to ever play at BYU, surpassing numbers put up by Steve Sarkisian and Steve Young and a bowl total offense record set by Ty Detmer.

That, folks, is carving some marks on the school’s Mount Rushmore of QBs.

He became the youngest BYU starting quarterback in history at 19 years, 2 months. He ended as one of the most accurate downfield passers the school had seen since Jim McMahon.

Pick any of his downfield throws to Dax Milne and Gunner Romney this season and a few to Aleva Hifo last year. Take that perfect strike to Neil Pau’u in his final BYU game, a win against Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl. They were as good of chunk yardage plays anyone has seen from any QB at BYU. Ever.

That is why Wilson literally came from nowhere this past August to what NFL scouts declare is a future first-round draft pick. Some have him the first quarterback taken after Heisman Trophy winner Trevor Lawrence of Clemson, ahead of Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

And that is why Wilson had to leap to the next level of play. He could not risk another year in college where this past week we saw Miami star QB D’Eriq King suffer an ACL tear in his bowl game on the same kind of play Wilson had been running all his BYU career — a scramble out of the pocket run.

If Wilson goes early in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft or even midway — as projected — his signing bonus guaranteed money will be generational, in the tens of millions of dollars.

Few have pointed out the significance of BYU ending the season on a big win over UCF. First, it sets up the offseason on a completely different plane than the year before with losses at San Diego State and Hawaii. Second, it sets a tone and leaves everyone hungry for more from the program, inside and out. Third, it is the way BYU ended it, going 11-1 with an explosive display of old-time BYU offensive fireworks.

In that 2020 finale, Wilson was 26 of 34 for 425 yards for 75.5% completion and 210.6 efficiency rating. He accounted for six touchdowns. BYU gained 655 yards on 73 plays. According to CougarStats, from 2001 to 2019 there were 1,084 games where a team ran 73 plays. Of those, 1,084 only 12 gained more than 655 yards.

Quarterback coach Aaron Roderick had watched Wilson since his early days in camps. When hired by Kalani Sitake in 2017, he immediately worked on Wilson to stay home after he had committed to Boise State. That foresight by Roderick ultimately proved absolutely perfect as a recruiter.

Wilson’s arm, his example, his leadership, his moxie and charisma immediately wove their way into the fabric of BYU lore.

Wilson didn’t throw an interception in the bowl game and only had three for the year — two were tipped balls and a third was a Hail Mary before halftime in a loss at Coastal Carolina. Heisman finalist Kyle Trask of Florida had three interceptions in the first quarter of the Gators’ Cotton Bowl loss to Oklahoma.

For whatever criticism has surfaced of Wilson after a most strange 2020 season, Roderick came to his defense easily at the close of BYU’s season.

Roderick went to Twitter to praise his guy. “Best quality of @zachkapono : zero entitlement. Respects teammates, coaches, & opponents. Exhibits his respect for the game with a relentless work ethic. Never feels like he’s arrived. Always wants to be coached. Never defensive about criticism from coaches, teammates, or fans.

“Competed for the starting job deep into fall camp. He respected how well @J_tom24 (Jaren Hall) & @baylorromney (Baylor Romney) played in his absence in 2019. Understood the importance of earning the job just like everyone else. Embraced competition as an opportunity for our TEAM to improve.”

@zachkapono understands all QBs have to re-earn the job every week, every day, every rep. He is always prepared. Film study beyond anything I’ve ever seen by a college player. I could keep going...”

Wilson, a most unlikely BYU legend in just three years. Actually, aside from his 2018 perfect bowl performance in Boise and wins over Tennessee and USC, his claim to BYU fame was basically one sensational COVID-19 pandemic delivery when the masses were hurting, hungry and anxious for some entertainment.

He delivered big time.