About this time last year, after Zach Wilson finished the 2019 season with a couple uneven performances upon returning from a fractured thumb, BYU offensive coaches started proclaiming the starting quarterback race “wide open” for the 2020 season.
Of course, not a lot of people believed them, including most media members. Wilson had played in far more games than his closest competitors for the job, Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney, had won the spot the previous fall camp, and was generally outstanding when he was fully healthy.
But that’s what head coach Kalani Sitake, then-offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and then-passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick were saying, so that’s what was reported.
Flash forward to this year, with spring camp two months away, barring COVID-19 interruptions: Wilson, who on Wednesday was named one of five finalists for the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year Award, is off to the NFL as a projected first-round draft pick. Grimes is the new OC at Baylor in his home state of Texas. Roderick has been promoted to OC while retaining his position as quarterbacks coach.
And the quarterback derby is wide open, again, Roderick says.
This time, he’s entirely correct. He’s not bluffing. He’s playing it straight. It is as open as it has been in recent memory. In other words, let the derby begin — for real, this time.
There are four candidates: junior Baylor Romney, redshirt sophomore Jaren Hall and redshirt freshmen Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters. Cedar City’s Mason Fakahua and walk-on Rhett Reilly were the other QBs listed on the 2020 roster.
Here’s what Roderick said Tuesday at his introductory news conference when asked by the Deseret News to handicap the quarterback competition:
“It is going to be tough,” he said. “It is going to be a hard decision, for sure. You always have to start with who we have seen play in a game before. I think it would be fair to start with Jaren and Baylor, because we have seen those guys play, and when they played, they both played well.”
Romney got almost every snap as Wilson’s backup in 2020 because Hall missed the entire season with a hip injury. Romney appeared in seven games, completing 24 of 35 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown, with one interception, for a passer efficiency rating of 134.93. Wilson’s was 196.4.
“We have seen Baylor more than Jaren (recently),” Roderick said. “Baylor played really well a couple years ago and got some big wins for us, and he got in quite a bit this year. Zach had such a great season that Baylor’s play was overshadowed, but when Baylor played this year he was very efficient and played well.”
For what it is worth, when Wilson sustained his thumb injury in an eventual 28-21 loss to Toledo on Sept. 28, 2019, Hall was his replacement.
Hall completed 31 of 46 passes for 420 yards and a touchdown and ran for 139 yards and three TDs in seven appearances in 2019, but suffered a concussion in a 42-14 win over Utah State on Nov. 2 and didn’t play the remainder of the season. He finished with a passer efficiency rating of 151.2.
“When Jaren played a couple years ago, briefly, he showed some really exciting flashes of what he is capable of,” Roderick said. “He is an excellent passer, very accurate thrower, with a lot of ability to be a good player. He has had some bad luck with injuries, but we expect him to be fully healthy for spring ball.”
Romney, a walk-on who has since been put on scholarship, was thrust into action when Hall was injured late in a 27-23 loss to South Florida and threw for 73 yards, but was unable to pull the game out for the Cougars.
A week later, however, Romney led BYU to a 28-25 upset of No. 14 Boise State, throwing for 221 yards and two TDs. He relieved Hall in the USU game, throwing for 191 yards in the second alone, and then beat Liberty 31-24 a week later at LaVell Edwards Stadium by throwing for 262 yards and three TDs.
Romney, the older brother of BYU receiver Gunner Romney, finished with a passer rating of 159.8 in 2019.
Maiava-Peters and Conover were more highly recruited than Hall and Romney, especially Conover. A native of Hau’ula, Hawaii, Maiava-Peters was rated as the No. 23 dual-threat QB in the country coming out of St. John’s College High in the Washington, D.C., area and was also recruited by Michigan, Oregon, Purdue, Virginia and Utah.
Conover was a four-star recruit out of Chandler, Arizona, but opted to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, leaving in February 2019. His mission to Paraguay was cut short by the pandemic and he joined the team last September.
“We have two young quarterbacks on scholarship right now, who were both very highly recruited, and really good players.” Roderick said. “So it is going to be tough. I can’t make any predictions right now, but we will make sure each one of those guys gets an opportunity to show what they can do.”
Another highly recruited offensive player from the 2019 signing class, American Fork receiver Chase Roberts, returns from a mission in Canada this spring and will join the team this summer, receivers coach and new passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake said Tuesday.
Sitake said he will be involved in the selection of the starting quarterback as much as Roderick wants him to be.
“Yeah, it will be completely his call,” Sitake said. “(Roderick), as he has always done, will lean on other coaches for their insight. Whether he has his mind made up or not, he has done great with that stuff. So he is going to make that call, but I won’t be surprised if he (asks) for everyone else’s opinion.”