When BYU landed quarterback Zach Wilson from Corner Canyon High on Dec. 21, 2017, the program was at a crossroad. Head coach Kalani Sitake had just completed a disappointing 4-9 season and dismissed Ty Detmer as offensive coordinator.
The quarterback room was left in shambles with Tanner Mangum returning for his senior year, but no one behind him. Most of Detmer’s recruits went elsewhere and Jaren Hall was on a mission. For Sitake, there was only one place to go — the Wilsons.
Mike and Lisa Wilson were longtime Utes. Mike even suited up for Utah in 1993 and 1994. However, his alma mater was betrothed to prized recruit Jack Tuttle, so Zach, a Utah fan since birth, committed to Boise State, but hadn’t signed with them.
Sitake sensed a window of opportunity and pounced, promising Wilson an early chance to play and become the face of the program in Provo. Wilson bought what he was selling, and he broke the news to the Broncos that he was going to BYU.
The head coach has had some pretty big wins since taking the job at BYU in 2016, including victories against No. 24 USC (twice), Tennessee, No. 6 Wisconsin, Michigan State, No. 18 Utah, No. 19 Arizona State, No. 14 Boise State and No. 9 Baylor. But let there be no mistake, his biggest win was the night Zach Wilson committed to his team.
On cue, the Corner Canyon star quickly became the youngest quarterback to start at BYU, and when his three years were over Wilson had thrown for 7,652 yards and 56 touchdowns and was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
His crusade during the COVID-19 pandemic turned him into America’s Saturday night date. With ESPN as the chauffeur, Wilson’s amazing ride included a completion rate of 73.5% for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also rushed for 10 touchdowns as BYU rolled up an 11-1 record.
Wilson was so good that he skipped his senior season and handed the baton to Hall, who found the spotlight just as conducive to his own skill set. Hall went 5-1 against the Pac-12 in 2021 and was drafted last month in the fifth round by Minnesota.
Pittsburgh/USC transfer Kedon Slovis became familiar with both Wilson and Hall through former Cougars quarterback John Beck and his quarterback school. Hall even coordinated his announcement that he was leaving BYU early with Slovis’ announcement that he was coming to replace him.
Without question, BYU’s interest from the Big 12 was cultivated as the conference teams watched Wilson light up Navy 55-3 on Labor Day 2020 while almost every other program was closed due to the pandemic.
The league also watched him lead BYU to 29 unanswered points in the second half to stun Houston 43-26. Three weeks later, they watched him put 51 on No. 21 Boise State in Boise. Even the 22-17 loss at No. 14 Coastal Carolina on short notice only strengthened Wilson’s credibility as a fighter.
BYU’s 49-23 demolishing of Central Florida in the Boca Raton Bowl was the last blast. Wilson’s 425 passing yards and three touchdowns, along with his two rushing touchdowns, flashed on the ESPN ticker throughout the entire bowl season.
His work was done. Before BYU could even stage another home game, Wilson was on the New York Jets and the Big 12 had invited the Cougars to join the conference on Sept. 10, 2021. Certainly, Wilson’s performance wasn’t the lone reason BYU is joining the Big 12 on July 1, but what he did to put Cougar football back on the map cannot be overstated.
This is not to say Taysom Hill, Jamaal Williams, Kyle Van Noy, Fred Warner, Tyler Allgeier and the other stars of the independence era didn’t play a vital role. But it was Wilson who lifted BYU up when the Cougars were stuck at rock bottom.
Zach’s brothers Josh and Micah followed him to BYU to play linebacker. His younger brother, Isaac, another talented quarterback at Corner Canyon, committed to play at Utah on Wednesday night. For Mike and Lisa and the part of the family that bleeds crimson, it gives them license to dust off their Ute shirts and celebrate, while maintaining the blue shirts that sent their oldest boy to the NFL.
More power to them. Every parent should celebrate the notion of someone else paying for their children’s college education.
BYU offered Isaac on Feb. 25, 2021, and certainly made a play for his services. But the Cougars are in a much different place than they were in 2017. Sitting behind Slovis is the nation’s No. 1 junior college quarterback Jake Retzlaff, according to ESPN, who was attracted to BYU because of Wilson and Hall.
Retzlaff can play up to four games this season and redshirt, leaving him with two years of eligibility to follow Slovis. Boise State transfer Cade Fennegan has three years of eligibility. The Cougars are also in play for several top high school prospects and the transfer portal will allow others to look their way.
No doubt the rivalry will ignite for a bit over Isaac’s decision to choose Utah, but BYU is a good place largely because of the Wilson that they absolutely had to get when they absolutely had to get him — and look where Zach has taken them.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.