clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Zach Wilson’s Transformation From Draft Afterthought to Headliner

BYU’s starting QB was on the fringes of the college football landscape before a stunningly successful junior season launched him up big boards. Now Wilson is one of the most discussed names ahead of April’s draft, with some even ranking him ahead of Trevor Lawrence. How did he get here?

Harrison Freeman

Perhaps no football player examined Joe Burrow’s rapid ascent more closely than Zach Wilson. As Wilson prepared for his junior season at BYU, he obsessively studied the film from Burrow’s senior-year breakout at LSU. He convinced his father, Mike, to ditch Comcast and purchase a YouTube TV subscription so that he could utilize its unlimited DVR storage to download NFL and college football games. He stockpiled LSU tape.

“He just wanted to see what made Joe Burrow, Joe Burrow,” Mike says, “and wanted to know why Aaron Rodgers was so good and learn some of the things he was doing. He just loves it. He really is a football junkie.”

Much like Burrow did, Wilson put together a stunningly successful season that saw him shoot from draft afterthought to one of the headliners in his class. Few outside Provo, Utah, could have predicted Wilson’s rise. Before the 2020 college football season kicked off, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields were cemented as the draft’s headliners. Wilson was barely on the radar.

After Burrow forged a historic 2019 Heisman campaign out of thin air and suddenly became a top draft choice, many wondered whether anyone in the ensuing class would experience a similar run. A pandemic-altered 2020 season perhaps spoiled that opportunity for some, but Wilson thrived, finishing the year with 3,692 yards, 33 touchdowns, and three interceptions while completing 73.5 percent of his passes. By the time winter concluded, Wilson had become a household name. Some even consider the 6-foot-3 210-pounder the draft’s best QB.

“I think that jump—that Joe Burrow–esque leap—of all the different things that factor into that, I feel the biggest one is Zach’s preparation and his passion for the game,” says Fesi Sitake, BYU’s passing game coordinator. “A lot of guys say they love the game, but his passion was backed up. His passion equates with sacrifices and the work it takes.”

Once an unknown, Wilson enters an unorthodox draft as one of its most discussed names. The previously little-known BYU QB is crashing the preestablished hierarchy of the 2021 draft.

Spectacular passes litter Wilson’s career highlight reel. His stunning, off-platform throws have persuaded NFL scouts and fans alike to fall in love with his game ahead of April’s draft. But the moment that made Sitake a Wilson believer wasn’t a highlight—it was one of the worst moments of Wilson’s collegiate career.

It was November 2018, two weeks after Wilson, then a true freshman, became the youngest starting QB in BYU history. The Cougars were playing rival Boise State in Boise, where BYU had never won. Facing a five-point deficit late in the fourth quarter, Wilson drove the Cougars to Boise State’s 2-yard line with seven seconds left, no timeouts. BYU called a two-man route combination, requiring Wilson to make a decisive snap read to either side. But after realizing both receivers were covered, Wilson declined to throw the ball away and instead attempted to step through a collapsing pocket. Sack. Game over. As Boise State stormed its blue-turf field, Sitake, then BYU’s receivers coach, found Wilson and placed a hand on the first-year QB’s helmet.

“He’s distraught,” Sitake recalls on a mid-January evening. “I grab his face mask, I look him in the eyes, and I just tell him my thoughts at that time. I don’t wanna put emphasis on the words I said, but it was the look in his eyes, I could see the distraught. But I could also see the fire. Almost a literal flame. Like, ‘This hurts me. This game is hurting more than any game I’ve ever gone through, but I’m about to be on a mission.’

“To me, that was the moment I would say that sticks out where I’m like, ‘OK, this guy’s going to be destined for greatness.’”

Sitake’s not surprised by what’s transpired since then. He’s overseen Wilson’s transformation from lightly recruited high school prospect to one of college football’s brightest stars and a likely top-five NFL draft pick.

As an FBS independent with no conference affiliation, BYU essentially pieced together its 2020 schedule on the fly, organizing contests as late as two days in advance. But BYU’s haphazard scheduling didn’t impact Wilson’s performance, and he parlayed his preparedness into a momentous campaign in which he finished third in the nation in passing yards, led the Cougars to their first 10-win season since 2011, and finished eighth in Heisman voting. “I know one of our sayings that our coaches have is ‘preparation brings swagger,’” Wilson once said during BYU’s 2019 fall camp. “I completely think that’s true.”

Wilson checks two boxes that are more essential than ever to his position: arm talent and mobility. The Ringer’s Danny Kelly rates Wilson as his no. 10 prospect (no. 3 QB) and sees shades of Baker Mayfield—who inspired Wilson’s headband look—and Rookie of the Year’s Henry Rowengartner. Wilson’s other pro comps feature players known for both skills, including Patrick Mahomes, Rodgers, Jeff Garcia, Kyler Murray, and Tony Romo.

But Wilson isn’t without flaws, and how teams evaluate his arm strength will determine where he goes in the draft. After analyzing Wilson’s BYU career, Football Outsiders’ Derrik Klassen says Wilson’s “cool, gunslinger mechanics” and quick release can make it seem as though he’s firing the ball faster than it’s actually leaving his hand.

“I think his arm is way over the baseline,” Klassen says. “He’s not gonna have any issues doing anything in the NFL. But to me, his arm is maybe slightly better than Baker Mayfield’s, which is still more than good enough to do everything you need to do on an NFL field. But I think people see some of the outside-the-pocket stuff and instantly think, ‘Oh, he has Aaron Rodgers, or Patrick Mahomes, or Matt Stafford–type of velocity and arm strength.’ Those are top-five [arms] in the NFL. And while Wilson has a good arm, I don’t think it’s like that.”

Wilson, who’s been training in Southern California ahead of the draft, recently told BYUtv Sports that he thinks his best trait is his ability to make “the awkward, funny throws” that result in explosive plays. “When we get to [the NFL], everybody can throw the basics, the outs and the curls, the straight dropback routes,” Wilson said. “But where I feel like where I can separate myself is when a play breaks down, you gotta leave the pocket, you gotta be able to drive the ball in awkward positions. … That’s definitely something I’ve been working on and something that’s in my pro day script.”

Wilson reminds Klassen a bit of Romo, whose swashbuckling style sustained a surprisingly long and successful NFL career. Wilson’s mobility plays a role in that comparison, but it’s the BYU signal-caller’s accuracy, at every level, that’s arguably his best trait.

“His deep ball is obviously fantastic and I think he probably has the best in this class,” Klassen says. “And I think if you need to fit a tight window over the middle—like if he’s throwing a dig or a Y-Cross [concept]—he can hit that just fine. If you need him to throw something in a bucket 25 yards down the field, he can do that. He’s also a fantastic quick-game passer.”

Wilson has been working with QB coach John Beck of 3DQB since his freshman year at BYU. Beck immediately recognized Wilson’s talent during their first training session. The longtime trainer, who attended BYU in the early 2000s and spent six seasons in the NFL, noticed that Wilson possessed a tantalizing ability to whip the ball and contort his arm to fit almost any angle. Beck says those “funny-body throws” are an element of Wilson’s game that the QB routinely works on and is refining.

“For most people, that looks like when all of a sudden everything breaks down, they’ve got to take off and try to make a play and they’re just trying to, in the moment, make it work,” Beck says. “Where it looks like with Zach, he just kind of does this as if he’s already done it 100 times. And it’s truly because he has. He’s practiced that way.”

Beck works with several veteran NFL QBs, including Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Matthew Stafford. However, Wilson is the first player who Beck has developed all the way through college and into their pro career.

“He’s not somebody that went from, like, can’t throw it downfield to now he can,” Beck says. “Zach was always able to throw a good ball downfield, pretty spiral. He’s just worked himself to that point where it just looks so easy. Like, a guy’s running a 50-yard post down the field, and he just lays the ball out there 50 yards and drops it in perfectly. It just looks way easy. How other people throw 15-yard routes and put it in a spot, he’s putting a ball 50 yards down the field in that spot.”

Mike didn’t intend for any of this. “Big Mike” played defensive line for the University of Utah from 1992 to 1995. He determined that none of his six kids (four boys, two girls) would play football, despite settling in Draper, Utah, just 20 miles from Rice-Eccles Stadium with his wife, Lisa. Football had been physically taxing on Mike, requiring him to undergo seven knee surgeries, including one that cost him his senior season. The physical toll wasn’t worth it, in his eyes. When Zach was about 5 or 6 years old, though, Mike says Lisa signed him up for flag football. The team needed a coach, and Lisa urged Mike to do it. He’d already dodged inquiring emails. He didn’t want to be that dad.

“She was like, ‘I don’t care.’ So she signed me up anyway,” Mike says in early January, one day after Zach left home to train for the draft in Southern California. “It’s kind of her fault. She kind of opened a big can [of worms].”


Mike, now a successful entrepreneur in the Salt Lake City area, coached Zach throughout his entire youth football career. He didn’t aim for Zach to play quarterback, but as an 8-year-old on his first tackle football team, Zach was the only kid who could throw. He became a QB by default, and immediately took to the position. “Zach’s always wanted to succeed at sports for whatever reason,” Mike says. “He’s just really taken to it and loves it. Didn’t want to do anything else in the world but play.”

The Wilson boys have always been competitive, whether in a game of football or a snowball fight. Zach, the oldest son, set the standard and his athletic prowess shined, especially in basketball. “We always said he was a basketball kid,” Mike says. “We thought he’d be playing Division I basketball right now.” Mike drove Zach all across the country to play AAU tournaments. Zach also competed in youth league games with current Golden State Warriors guard Nico Mannion, a fellow Utah native formerly rated 247Sports’ no. 1 2020 point guard prospect. Mike estimates that Zach played more than 100 basketball games every year, but as Zach excelled on the hardwood, his talent on the gridiron burgeoned, too.

Crimson red played a vital role in shaping Zach’s football interest. The Wilsons were die-hard Utah football fans. In 2003, they bought season tickets in the second row near the 50-yard line, across from the family of now-Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham, who was Mike’s defensive line coach in 1994 and defensive coordinator in 1995. Growing up, Zach partook in Whittingham’s summer football camps, but despite this exposure, it seemed unlikely that he’d become an NFL quarterback—the odds suggested that he wouldn’t. Utah rarely produces in-state QB talent; the state is better known for molding out-of-state passers into local legends. Only three Utah-born QBs (Steve Young, Scott Mitchell, Luke Falk) have played in the NFL since 1985. In that same span, two Utes QBs and four BYU QBs who were out-of-state products have reached the league.

Besides, Zach entered high school with basketball as his primary ambition. At 5-foot-10, however, he lacked the size to draw recognition on the court. His talent suggested he’d have a better chance on the football field. Eric Kjar, Zach’s football coach at Corner Canyon High School, says the signs that Zach could be special were apparent early on.

“A lot of ability, super athletic, really good throwing talent,” Kjar recalls, “and just a fun presence about him to be around.”

Sitake, then FCS Weber State’s offensive coordinator, first noticed him during a Utah satellite camp during Zach’s sophomore year. He wanted to offer Zach a scholarship immediately—out of respect for Utah, which organized the camp, he didn’t—and convinced Mike to bring Zach out to a Weber State camp. “When he came to our camp, he did what he did, and you could see something really special,” Sitake says. “He was really just a noodle, man. He was really skinny, but you could tell he had a frame to grow in. The velocity that he threw with at such a young age, knowing that he wasn’t even close to fully developed yet, was really, really intriguing.”

Weber State extended one of Zach’s earliest offers, but he generated no early interest from in-state powerhouses BYU and Utah. The Cougars held a commitment from three-star prospect Zadock Dinkelmann, then-OC Ty Detmer’s nephew; the Utes had earned the commitment of Jack Tuttle, the no. 8 pro-style QB in the 2018 class. Both schools intended to sign only one QB that cycle. Zach, a three-star recruit, garnered more attention during his junior year and finally decided to end his basketball career following a state semifinal run. Football became his only focus as a senior.

“You would see the improvements come in his arm strength or ability, and running ability and overall strength as he was getting bigger and stronger,” Kjar says. “You would see him continue to get better with that.”

Zach participated in QB camps to get noticed by scouts. In March 2017, he attended a Nike Opening event and competed alongside some of the top-rated QBs in his class, including Tuttle, Cameron Rising, and Matt Corral. Zach’s slim frame stood out—he weighed only 176 pounds. “All these guys were 6-foot-1-plus, 6-foot-2, and they all weighed 215, 230 [pounds],” Mike says. “Zach was 25, 30 pounds lighter than everybody, so we needed to put some weight on him.” Lisa, now a personal trainer who hails from the highly successful Neeleman family, put Zach on a 5,500-calorie-a-day diet. (“A lot of white rice,” Mike says.) The diet change and staying off the basketball court helped Zach gain 21 pounds in two months; when he attended another Nike Opening event in June 2017, he weighed 197 pounds, and finally started getting attention from bigger schools. Boise State made him an offer, and he committed, ecstatic about the chance to play for a prominent program close to home.

Zach put together a strong senior campaign and collected several more offers, including from Syracuse, Minnesota, Iowa, and California. But all he heard was crickets from nearby BYU and Utah. The Cougars finally entered the fold after making significant coaching changes following their first losing season in over a decade. In late November 2017, the school relieved Detmer, its only Heisman winner, of his OC role, hired Jeff Grimes as his replacement, and added Sitake—whose cousin, Kalani Sitake, is BYU’s head coach—as receivers coach. With Detmer out, the Cougars staff suddenly had clearance to pursue Zach. Sitake’s preestablished relationship with Zach made a last-minute run for his commitment a possibility, but, “now, the conversation was, ‘Do we have a shot with him?’” Sitake recalls. “He hates BYU, wants nothing to do with it.”

Utah and BYU are bitter rivals—and the Wilsons were die-hard Utes fans. To boot, BYU hadn’t shown interest until the final stretch of Zach’s recruitment. The Cougars nearly missed out on him completely. On the final weekend for official recruiting visits before signing day, Zach scheduled a visit to Iowa, but the Hawkeyes accepted the commitment of three-star Spencer Petras the evening before Zach’s 8 a.m. flight. Zach instead visited BYU that weekend—he and his family were blown away. A week later, he committed.

“I look at it as, it was Utah’s loss,” Zach told KSL Sports in June 2019. “I think it was a good decision for BYU, and I look to take full advantage of this opportunity that BYU’s given me.”

Wilson quickly established himself at BYU. As an early enrollee, he earned spring practice snaps with the first team while starting QB Tanner Mangum battled injury. Wilson’s sharp competitiveness raised some eyebrows. Sitake recalls established players trying to figure out why the baby-faced, sandy-blond-haired QB who should’ve been attending prom was so vocal.

“There’s no question [he’s] confident,” Sitake says. “Confidence is the no. 1 thing. But right there next to it, put humility. It’s weird. It’s a very humble confidence and I think he has the perfect balance of that. I’ve seen people try to force those two characteristics together, and I think you can lose an identity when you do that if you force it, but it’s just so natural for him.”

For Wilson to keep up with bigger and faster competition, he needed to supplement live reps with knowledge of BYU’s system and the nuances of playing QB at a high level. That’s when he connected with Beck, one of the nation’s most respected QB trainers. Once Wilson finished up his first spring ball session at BYU, he headed out to Huntington Beach, California, to train with Beck for the first time.

“You can just tell the guys that have spent a lot of time throwing the football working to be really good at what they want to do,” Beck says. “But you can also see when there’s raw potential, right? You see this really athletic kid, you can tell he’s a multisport athlete, you can tell he’s practiced a lot. But then you see these little things here or there where you’re like, ‘Man, if he can clean that up, and if he can add this, and if he can be like this, then there could be a wow factor there.’”

In October 2018, Wilson logged his first collegiate start, completing 16 of 24 passes for 194 yards, three touchdowns, and one pick in a 49-23 win against Hawaii. Then-senior receiver Dylan Collie, sitting next to Wilson at the postgame presser, leaned over his mic before praising the newcomer’s outing. “Uhhhh, 49 points,” Collie said. “That’s pretty dang good for an 18-year-old kid to come in and play as confident as he was. I don’t think a lot of kids could do it. Zach did it, and he’s gonna continue to do it, because I know his preparation is going to stay the same. … I have a lot of faith in him. I know that everyone else does.”

Wilson fought back a smirk during Collie’s answer, then was asked whether he still felt like a freshman before confidently replying, “I don’t really think age matters, to be honest.”

But success wasn’t instantaneous for Wilson. The Cougars split his next six games, losing a regular-season finale against Utah before rebounding in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Western Michigan. Wilson capped the year on a high note, completing 18 of 18 passes for 317 yards and four TDs.

In the offseason, Wilson underwent labrum surgery on his right shoulder to alleviate some chronic post-throwing soreness. That procedure kept him out of spring ball and limited him in the fall. The coaching staff considered of redshirting him, but Wilson toughed it out through the opening weeks of the season. Things got worse when he broke his right thumb against Toledo, knocking him out for a couple of weeks. His play didn’t improve when he returned: BYU scuttled to a 7-6 record, and Wilson completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 2,382 yards, 11 TDs, and nine picks in nine games.

After his ho-hum sophomore season, Wilson was not guaranteed his starting job in 2020, and he was determined to buckle down in the offseason. He pored over Burrow’s breakout and film of other QBs, studying their schemes and decisions. “I know up there in that mind of his, he’s able to retain a lot,” Beck says. “And there’s a lot of football knowledge there that he can draw upon.”

Beck says there are two categories of football players: regular players and true football guys, those who consume the game every opportunity they get. Wilson fits the latter bucket. Beck is used to seeing Wilson review plays on his iPad. He notes that the type of access to the game these days is an advantage young players can use to get ahead of their peers. “Back in the day, when I wanted tape either my people put it on a DVD for me or a VHS tape,” Beck jokes. “Or I had to be at the school, logging into their computers.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted the sports world, Wilson regularly made 10-hour drives from Utah to California to train with Beck, facing no interruption because BYU canceled its spring practices. “I think,” Beck says, “when you take the combination of who Zach is, the type of athlete that he is, the work ethic that he has, and combine that with already the experience that he’s had throwing the football, plus everything he was gaining, it was a really unique situation.”

Wilson had the opportunity of a lifetime. He’d hit Beck up and ask to observe his training sessions with pro clients before receiving his instruction time. Beck’s schedule in one day could look like this:

  • Matt Ryan, 7 a.m.
  • Matthew Stafford, 9 a.m.
  • Jared Goff, 10:30 a.m.
  • Justin Herbert, noon

“And then out walks Zach Wilson next,” Beck says.

As BYU’s season inched closer, Wilson trekked across state lines during the weekends to train in person with Beck and still return in time for mandatory practices. He’d sometimes work as a DoorDash delivery driver to save up money for gas and expenses. Although, for as often as broadcasters mentioned Wilson’s travels during BYU’s telecasts this season, Sitake says it only scratches the surface of the type of all-out effort Wilson puts into understanding and learning football. Sitake points out how critical Wilson is of himself, and how he studies teammates to highlight their strengths during intensive film reviews.

“I think as fans and even as a coach sometimes you can put the fan goggles on and you forget that,” Sitake says. “You just admire what’s going on, but I feel that that’s what contributes mostly to that leap. And to be able to see that right in front of my face over the last year has just been a major blessing because now I have a reference point for people as to what it takes to be great.”

Wilson’s Burrow-esque leap nearly didn’t happen. Before the 2020 season started, BYU’s contests against Michigan State, Minnesota, Utah, Arizona State, Stanford, and Missouri were all canceled as Power Five conferences nipped nonconference plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cougars’ matchups with Northern Illinois and Utah State were both canceled, too, while games against Boise State and San Diego State were rescheduled. Additionally, the Cougars’ game against Houston changed venues. BYU constructed a schedule on the fly—and even dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak within its football program, forcing another cancellation—but its junior quarterback was unfazed.

Wilson set single-game career highs against Troy (392 passing yards) and Houston (400 passing yards, four TDs), as BYU jumped to 7-0 and no. 12 in the AP top 25 (its highest ranking since 2009). The no. 9 Cougars routed Boise State, 51-17, before scheduling unbeaten Coastal Carolina on two days’ notice. BYU lost, but even though Wilson had already solidified himself as a first-round draft prospect, he didn’t consider opting out of the Cougars’ last two games; he ended up posting a 425-yard (another career high), three-TD outing against UCF in the Boca Raton Bowl to close out his career.

It was a bona fide breakout season for Wilson, the one he had worked so hard for. Only 16.3 percent of his deep passes were considered uncatchable and he notched Pro Football Focus’s highest single-season tight-window passing grade (92.7) since 2018. He finished second among all FBS passers in completion rate (73.5 percent), third in yards per attempt (11.0), and fourth in total EPA per attempt (0.51).

The most common question Beck gets asked about Wilson’s remarkable 2020 is, “What clicked?” He’s not sure there was a singular moment or one specific thing Wilson did, though. “Has there been plays throughout the season where he and his wideouts have been on? Absolutely,” Beck says, “and it takes more than just Zach to have those plays. It takes the players around him. But the entire time I’ve known Zach, he’s displayed characteristics, attributes of a guy that was going to be able to accomplish a lot and play at a really high level.”

“I’ve seen him go through a lot of ups and downs here,” Sitake says, “and obviously he’s had his moments where he’s been a little fragile and been tested, but I’ve always admired his strength and just his consistency in who he is at a core, as a human being.”

Wilson doesn’t have an NFL team yet, but he hears the comparisons to some of the league’s top NFL QBs. “Personally, I don’t like to compare myself to any of those guys,” he told BYUtv Sports earlier this month. “I look at it like, ‘I’m Zach Wilson. I throw how I throw.’ I’m different from all those guys—maybe some similarities in there. It’s generous to be compared to those guys, but really, I try to avoid comparing myself to anybody, because I’m my own quarterback.”

Wilson has shared his thoughts on schematic fits in the past. During his first spring on BYU’s campus, he explained that he enjoyed playing in a spread-oriented scheme, but understood that “play-action kills defenses.” In January, he was put on the spot and asked by BYUtv Sports which NFL teams he felt he’d fit with and mentioned the 49ers “because I’m very familiar with what Kyle Shanahan does and the system that they have in place,” and the Panthers, citing offensive coordinator Joe Brady (formerly LSU’s passing game coordinator).

As momentum for the BYU star builds, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly projects the Jets, who pick second (and boast a Shanahan disciple in OC Mike LaFleur), to select him. The Jaguars—who own the draft’s no. 1 pick and are expected to take Lawrence—have conducted at least two Zoom interviews with Wilson. Not bad for someone who wouldn’t have even been on most draft analysts’ boards a year ago.

Wilson’s past year has been a whirlwind. It has been somewhat challenging for the Wilsons to fully enjoy their son’s rise, as pressure for him to succeed mounted. They felt overwhelmed at times, and Mike says that he was relieved when Wilson’s final season ended. But now, Mike says, it’s enjoyable to reflect on the wonderful things that happened for him this year—even if the process to this point has had taxing moments for the parents.

“My wife tells me all the time, ‘Why did you do this to me?’” Mike says, laughing. “And I’m like, ‘It’s not my fault. It’s your fault. You signed me up to be a coach, I didn’t want to be a coach!’”

For now, the Wilsons can breathe. Their second- and third-oldest sons, Josh (who just finished his first season at BYU) and Micah (a three-star recruit), are both linebackers. Their youngest son, Isaac, on the other hand, well … time will tell whether the 13-year-old QB is another future star. In the meantime, they’re at peace knowing Zach is comfortably preparing for the next step of a pro career that hardly anyone saw coming.

NFL

What’s More Important in NFL Quarterback Development: Nature or Nurture?

NFL Draft

The Votes of Confidence Teams Gave Their Vets in the NFL Draft

Fantasy Sports

The 14 NFL Rookies With the Most Fantasy Football Potential in 2021

View all stories in NFL Draft