How freshman QB Jacob Conover called the perfect audible when pandemic scuttled his lifelong plan
Cougars’ four-way competition to replace NFL-bound Zach Wilson as the their starting quarterback began in earnest as spring camp began Monday with Conover dueling with Jaren Hall, Baylor Romney and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters to be the man
Two days before BYU started fall classes last August, Jacob Conover was happily working at Dick’s Sporting Goods and as swimming pool cleaner in the Phoenix area when he got a telephone call from then-BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes.
The Cougars had determined that quarterback Jaren Hall wouldn’t be able to play much, if at all, in 2020 due to an ailing hip, and were wondering if Conover, the former four-star recruit from Arizona’s Chandler High, would be willing to join the team on a moment’s notice as a walk-on willing to pay his own way the first four months.
“Coach Grimes said to think about it, pray about it, and call him back in the morning,” Conover said last week in an exclusive interview with the Deseret News. “I did, and I decided to do it.”
So instead of joining the Cougars in January 2021, as was the plan before Conover’s mission in Asuncion, Paraguay, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was shortened to 15 months by the COVID-19 pandemic and he returned home in April 2020, he packed up the next day and drove to Provo.
“He just embraced the heck out of it. He was literally trying to be the other team’s guy, the other team’s quarterback, trying to run their offense. … Every week I would get a comment from one of the defensive coaches about something good he did over there. ‘You gotta see this throw he made,’ something like that. So it was really cool to see what he did.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
His first practice was the Wednesday before the Cougars headed out Labor Day weekend to play at Navy, a game they won 55-3 to kick off one of the best seasons (11-1) in program history, and shortly after that Conover started impressing coaches and teammates as a scout team quarterback.
“It worked out perfectly,” he said.
The Cougars began spring practices last Monday, with Conover joining two QBs with game experience — the aforementioned Hall and Baylor Romney — and fellow redshirt freshman Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters in the four-way race to replace NFL-bound 2020 starter Zach Wilson.
“I am excited to see what spring ball holds for all of us,” Conover said. “It is going to be fun. I am excited for the competition to begin. Can’t wait.”
Conover, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, said he has “never been in better shape in my life than right now” and feels like he has “finally transitioned out of my mission body” and returned to the conditioning level he was at when he graduated early from high school in December 2018.
“I love each and every one of those (other quarterbacks),” he said. “We are all super tight, which is awesome. In the quarterback room, there shouldn’t be any contention, or else neither one of us will thrive.
“I loved being here last year, because I was able to build personal relationships with all of them,” he continued. “I love hanging out with Baylor, Jaren, Sol-Jay, Rhett Reilly (a walk-on) and Jake Jensen (of Pleasant Grove). We are all a pretty tight-knit group and we all support one another.”
Conover said he picked up invaluable experience last fall, not just from running the scout team, but by being able to observe the way Wilson operated — in practices, film study sessions and games.
“I have known Zach for a long time,” he said. “Just watching him progress from a freshman until now, where he is one of the top prospects in the draft, has been impressive. His mental game is so good. I mean, he has God-given athletic ability, but just to see his mental maturity and his respect for the game has been impressive as well.”
Does Conover have a chance to fill Wilson’s shoes?
You better believe it, says new BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who has promised a wide-open QB derby throughout spring camp.
“Jacob will get an opportunity, for sure,” Roderick said last month. “He did a lot of great things last year on scout team, and obviously he was a highly recruited guy.”
Roderick said it took a couple of weeks to get Conover acclimated last fall, and then he started making plays on a daily basis against BYU’s first-team defense in practice.
“He just embraced the heck out of it,” Roderick said. “He was literally trying to be the other team’s guy, the other team’s quarterback, trying to run their offense. … Every week I would get a comment from one of the defensive coaches about something good he did over there. ‘You gotta see this throw he made,’ something like that. So it was really cool to see what he did.”
Back in Chandler, the man who was Conover’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator and is now the Wolves’ head coach, Rick Garretson, has watched the developments unfold in Provo with a knowing grin.
“I think it helped that Jacob was able to come in this past fall. That’s huge,” Garretson said. “When you are away from the game for a couple of years, as a quarterback, it is just tough to get back on that horse again. … So having the ability to be with them all last year is huge. Going against the starters, I am sure they found out his abilities really fast, what he could do.”
‘Who the heck is this?’
Garretson, who also coached current BYU receiver Gunner Romney and incoming BYU offensive lineman Sione Hingano at Chandler, which is southeast of Phoenix, knew Conover was going to be an outstanding player before he even got to high school.
When Conover was an eighth grader, they took him to a seven-on-seven high school passing tournament and gave him a chance to play after future Arizona State stars N’Keal Harry and Chase Lucas staked the team to a big lead.
“He took the team right down the field and scored, then did it again and again,” Garretson said. “Our older guys were going, ‘Who the heck is this?’ So right then, I knew he had that potential, that ‘it’ factor.”
Conover would go on to start for three years and throw for 10,098 yards and 102 touchdowns with just 16 interceptions for Chandler and lead the Wolves to three state championships. He became a four-star recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings and was ranked No. 104 on ESPN’s list of the top 300 recruits in the class of 2019.
“He is a phenomenal player. He has unbelievable leadership skills, and was very mature, even when he was a sophomore, playing for us. And he makes people around him better as players. He’s got ‘it’ and that’s what you are looking for in a quarterback.” — Chandler High coach Rick Garretson on Jacob Conover
“He is a phenomenal player,” Garretson said. “He has unbelievable leadership skills, and was very mature, even when he was a sophomore, playing for us. And he makes people around him better as players. He’s got ‘it’ and that’s what you are looking for in a quarterback. He knows how to win, he knows how to lead, he knows how to throw strikes, and how to process things quickly. He is just a fantastic football player.”
In just his second start as a sophomore, Conover threw for more than 400 yards as Chandler traveled to Norco, California, and fell 56-49 to national powerhouse Corona Centennial in August 2016.
“That was the start of something special,” Garretson said. “We knew we had a big-time player on our hands.”
Garretson said Conover is “absolutely a good athlete” who ran for more than 100 yards in a game several times during his prep career, including the 2018 6A state semifinals. Listed at 6-1, he’s tall enough to give the Cougars what they need at the position, the coach said.
“A lot of people think just because you are 6-4, 6-3 you are a good quarterback. It doesn’t always work that way,” Garretson said. “Jake has got a release point that is like a 6-foot-4 guy. And there are some 6-4 guys who throw it (like they’re) 5-foot-10, because of their release points.
“He has always had that ability to maneuver in the pocket, and keep his eyes down field,” Garretson continued. “Without his foot speed and his ability to get down the field, we wouldn’t have won (some) ball games. He has all those attributes. … He will be just fine.”
BYU — ‘Always on my mind’
Conover began playing organized football in the third grade, and his father, Jeff, “pushed me to be a quarterback from the day I could walk.” Jeff Conover played football in high school and ran track at Mesa Community College before moving on to BYU, where he married Katie Whipple Conover, an accomplished musician who has made sure Jacob is a well-rounded person and not just a one-track-mind football player.
The quarterback can also play the acoustic guitar, “loves to sing and play music,” and is a good volleyball player, the sport of choice of his four younger sisters. He doesn’t have any brothers, but enjoys fly fishing with his South Jordan-based grandparents and uncles, and likes to wake surf.
“Lake Powell is my second home,” he says.
He’s caught rainbow trout up to 30 inches at Strawberry Reservoir and almost-as-large striped bass at Lake Powell.
Conover grew up “playing every sport with a ball in it,” then focused on football, track and basketball in high school, the latter two to “stay in shape for football and keep that competitive drive going.”
“I loved staying busy, so basketball and track were fun,” he said. “But it has always been a dream of mine to make football my profession one day.”
“I loved staying busy, so basketball and track were fun. But it has always been a dream of mine to make football my profession one day.” — Jacob Conover
When it came time to take his services to college, Conover fielded offers from national powerhouse Alabama and Pac-12 schools such as Arizona, Arizona State and Washington State before committing to BYU on Mother’s Day in 2018.
He narrowed his choices to hometown ASU and BYU before committing to the Cougars and coach Kalani Sitake although BYU went 4-9 in 2017 and fired then-offensive coordinator Ty Detmer after posting its worst season in 50 years.
“I pretty much grew up as a little kid with BYU in mind,” he said. “I was pretty much born on this campus. My dad had me in his arms here at graduation. So it was pretty cool to know in the back of my mind that I was always going to come to BYU and have that dream be fulfilled.”
Conover enjoyed watching BYU greats John Beck, Taysom Hill and Max Hall growing up, but the QBs he emulated most were professional stars Joe Montana, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.
“One thing I loved about Joe Montana is they called him a smooth operator, because he was so cool, calm and collected under pressure,” Conover said. “And I am impressed with how Russell Wilson can manage his team. And I admire the leadership of Tom Brady.”
Sticking to the plan
Conover also grew up wanting to serve a church mission, and he got the call to Paraguay early in 2019. He spent most of his 15 months in that country in South America “out in the boonies,” about five hours away from the capital, Asuncion. He played no football at all, but did have some interesting adventures.
“One time we were out hiking, and there was a storm that hit us,” he said. “It shut out all the power. We were out in middle of the wilderness, running through waist-deep water, and almost got hit by lightning twice on the way home. It was pretty crazy.”
When the pandemic hit and he returned home, he was given the opportunity to remain home or spend the remainder of his time in McAllen, Texas, speaking Spanish. He opted for the former, which is why he was available when Grimes called.
“A mission was probably the hardest thing I have ever done, up to this point, just in the ways it stretched me emotionally, physically and spiritually,” said Conover, who is majoring in psychology and would like to work in sports performance psychology when his playing days are done, helping other athletes improve their work by strengthening their mental capabilities.
“I knew when I was coming home that I would have to face the decision whether to stay or go back,” he said. “I obviously prayed about it, and I felt that for some reason I should stay home, and now here I am today.”
Where the plan is working perfectly.