Zach Wilson comes from a University of Utah family. His dad Mike played linebacker for the Utes, his mom has a long history there, and the family had season tickets on the 50-yard line across the aisle from Utah coach Kyle Whittingham’s family at Rice-Eccles Stadium. BYU was the enemy. In 2016, Zach, a junior in high school, was a middling three-star QB recruit who remembers being at Rice-Eccles in 2016 as Utah nipped BYU and its exciting quarterback, Taysom Hill, in a 20-19 thriller.
Two years later, Wilson was a freshman starting quarterback for BYU at Utah, his parents watching from their family seats. Weird. Turns out it took till after Wilson’s senior year in high school to get BYU interested, and the hard sell worked. Wilson, a developing 6-2 ½-inch, 210-pound hard thrower with good movement in the pocket, earned the starting job in October of his freshman year, 2018. But in 2019, dogged by labrum and hand injuries, Wilson struggled, and after the season, then-passing game coordinator/QB coach Aaron Roderick told him there’d be a competition for the starting job in 2020. Said Roderick, who was confident Wilson would win the job once fully healthy: “I told him, ‘This is gonna be good for you. One day you’ll be in the NFL, and you’ll be under fire, and you’ll have to deal with injury and disappointment.’ The thing about Zach is, he did know it’d be good for him. He never complained, never felt entitled.”
Wilson said he’d have worked with Beck in the spring and summer before the 2020 season anyway, but admitted, “That was a tough time for me. It was frustrating because [I] was the starter before. I had to block out what people were saying about me. That adversity was something preparing me for that next level because there’s gonna be ups and downs in the NFL, and now I think I’m better prepared for them.”
On one of those 10-hour drives, he played the “QB” audiobook by Young, written with Jeff Benedict in 2016. Young, of course, was a BYU legend, maybe the best quarterback ever at a renowned quarterback school, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a Super Bowl MVP. “I’d thought everything was so smooth in his career,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t.” Young signed with the USFL out of BYU, and it was a football disaster (except financially). His second stop, in Tampa, was worse. “I’d come into the locker room at halftime,” Young told me last week, “and everybody’s smoking!” Even a trade to San Francisco in 1987 brought heartache because of annual head-to-head battles for playing time with the great Joe Montana. In his seventh pro season, 1989, Young was frantic. Wilson couldn’t believe what he was hearing on the audiobook. Such as this passage from “QB: My Life Behind the Spiral,” when Young described a friend, Jim Herrmann, riding in the car with him one day in the ’89 season and finding uncashed checks from the 49ers:
“Whoa! There is a quarter of a million dollars here,” he said.
I said nothing.
“Bro, don’t you think you should cash these?”
“I can’t cash those things.”
“What? Why not?”
“I don’t feel like I’m earning the money.”
That night, I moved the checks to a drawer in my nightstand, where I left them for the rest of the season.
“I thought that was a super-cool book,” Wilson said. “Like Steve not cashing his checks. It’s so cool his mentality of, ‘I haven’t earned it yet.’ He’s always hungry for more and some people just feel like they’ve arrived. He was just not like that at all. That was such a cool lesson for me to learn. Even if I am fortunate enough to go early in the draft and make it to a good team, I haven’t done anything yet. You have to keep working for it.
“I think that’s what’s interesting about my career as well. I wasn’t a big recruit. I didn’t have a lot of offers. I went to BYU as just a normal three-star recruit. Nothing special. Nobody expected me to play early. I ended up having a chance to play as a freshman, something that I had to work for—nine quarterbacks in the quarterback room at the time. And then I was nobody last year and I was fighting for my starting job back and having shoulder surgery. Things didn’t go as well as we wanted to and the coaches opened up a competition to try and win the starting spot back. I was so determined to try and win that job back and prove that it was mine.”
I told Young about what Wilson took from his story, and it made him happy. “Nobody knows how much grit you have till you have to have it,” Young said. “So you’ve got to fight for a job. Say you get benched. Look at you; don’t look at anyone else. Most often, victimization takes over, but it never does any good to play the victim. Work on yourself. Work on your game. You better have that level of grit to fight for a job and to fight to win a game, because in this game, you’re going to be tested over and over again.”
In his off-season work with Beck, Wilson finally felt healthy after January 2019 labrum surgery and hand surgery in the fall. His hip rotation and velocity got better in the work with Beck last year, the velocity particularly. “My arm got stronger, and I could work on making all the throws again,” Wilson said. By the time Wilson left in July for BYU’s summer practice, Beck thought the number of throws Wilson could make down the field with accuracy had shot way up.
In the video from three games I watched, there was one throw that I thought was the kind of NFL throw scouts and pro coaches would love. It happened in the Cougars’ only loss of the year, that crazy Saturday night game at Coastal Carolina that got invented three days before the game, with BYU flying to South Carolina for the game 40 hours after finding out they were playing in it.
BYU trailed 22-17 with 35 seconds left. Second-and-19 at the Cougar 9-yard line. No timeouts left. Desperation time. What Wilson said about this play when I asked him sounded like Tiger Woods remembering in vivid detail his second shot on 14 in the third round of the ’19 Masters, or Peyton Manning recalling a 15-year-old play like it happened five minutes ago. And this, I can assure you, will be music to the ears of teams wondering, “What kind of student of the game is Wilson?” Because he’ll need to be a good one in the NFL.
“I had plenty of time to prepare for the game,” he said.
Oh really? Two days?
Wilson: “I had a couple of tells in that game. Coastal Carolina subbed in number four (linebacker Kendricks Gladney Jr.)—he was lined up over the center and I knew that when he did that and they were in their two-minute situation, they were gonna play a ‘two-invert,’ where the safeties would play the seams. The safeties would sink and the corners would actually roll and go and hug the high post and then the backers would sprint underneath to the flats. I knew exactly what coverage was coming based on where [Gladney] was lined up. We had called a ‘four verts’ package there [four receivers running go routes or forms of them] and I knew based on timing and everything that I wasn’t gonna be able to hold the ball or throw the ball on time. I knew that I was gonna have to hold it and move around a little bit and try to find something. I remember just knowing in that coverage, when the corner to the field had the vertical seam by the slot, that he’s gonna roll over and try to take it away. and someone else is gonna run underneath [our] outside guy and play in the flat. I knew there was a shot where if I could put that ball right over the guy in the flat, and on the back shoulder to where that corner is playing the seam, there was a little window right there almost like a hole shot at [BYU receiver Gunner Romney]. I just remember, if I keep my eyes down the field, I’ll hold him and I’ll just keep that corner looking then I can fire that shot in there and that’d be a big gain.”
On the play, as best you can, watch Wilson’s eyes, or his head. Looks left, looks left, quick glance to the middle, then a millisecond look to the right and the hardest throw he could make. “I was holding the middle of the field,” Wilson said. “I was really trying to get those corners to think I was throwing down the middle of the field.”
Beck was watching from home in California. “That ball has to be driven,” Beck said. “We have a saying—you can’t just throw it, sometimes you have to drive it through the receiver. That play was a perfect example.”
Wilson howitzered the ball 41 yards in the air, to a point about two feet over Romney’s head. Romney leaped and came down with it. In 35 seconds, with no timeouts, Wilson took BYU 90 yards. He needed 91. The game ended with a completed catch a yard short of the end zone. It was BYU’s only loss of the year. “After the game,” BYU offensive coordinator Roderick said, “Zach went around to every guy in that locker room and said, “I gotta play better.’ “
I asked Roderick about Wilson’s recall, and his head for the position. “We can talk after a 12-play drive,” Roderick said, “and he’ll just take me through it—every play, in order, everything he saw, why he made every decision, what he was trying to do to the defense. His recall—I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I don’t know,” Wilson said when I asked him about it. His words sounded like a virtual shrug. “I try to understand every little detail. I don’t know where it comes from. I guess it’s the passion I have for the game.”
Recently, Jaguars offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer called Beck to discuss Wilson. (Jacksonville is widely expected to take Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in April, but Schottenheimer was doing his homework here.) “We talked about that Coastal Carolina drive,” Beck said. “He loved it. He said there were so many throws on that drive he loved—including that throw when he was backed up.”
Three other things:
• Wilson said he studied every one of Joe Burrow’s games from his 2019 LSU season “three or four times.” Wilson has the same kind of pocket-movement ability as Burrow, staying cool while figuring the best location from which to throw the most accurate ball. “There were so many things he did that I tried to apply to my games,” Wilson said.
• Spatial awareness is huge for an NFL quarterback because of the mayhem around him so often. Beck thinks several years of playing basketball as a kid all over the country—Wilson wanted to earn a basketball scholarship, not football, till his sophomore football season in high school—gave him “almost an innate sixth sense of feeling everything around him, like he’s around the rim on a basketball court.” When he moves in the pocket, it’s not frenetic, but more calculating.
• DoorDash. Crazy. Last year he was in California with Beck on Mother’s Day, and wanted to get his mom a large bouquet of flowers. So he worked a few extra hours that weekend to make the money. And back in Provo, if you saw a fit auburn-haired kid on a moped with some food bags in the last couple of summers, that was Wilson too. Roderick said there was a social-media post last year that said, “I’m pretty sure Zach Wilson just delivered my DoorDash. Is that possible?”
Yes. Yes it was. But his DoorDash days will be over this spring. BYU’s Pro Day is March 26, and he’ll be Zooming with teams in the weeks before the draft. He said he’s done “three or four” already. (Each team can do a maximum of five Zoom meetings with each prospective draftee.) Wilson’s skill-set is ideal for the quick-thinking and quick-throwing West Coast scheme, making the Jets (and new coordinator Mike LaFleur) at number two an intriguing option. Carolina, at eight with offensive coordinator Joe Brady, could be a strong candidate too; the Panthers may upgrade from Teddy Bridgewater, and Brady likes a coach-on-the-field type who can make throws to all parts of the field.
Entering the draft after his true-junior season and only one season (against mediocre competition) of high production is a definite risk. “It was nowhere in my intentions before the season,” he said. “But I always told myself if I had a chance to go in the first round, that’d be an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Now the question is: Which team at the top of the draft won’t be able to pass up Wilson?