Provo • Having grown up a University of Utah football fan while also emulating his favorite professional football quarterback, Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers, Zach Wilson wasn’t fully aware of what it meant to be the starting quarterback at BYU when he arrived in Provo last winter.
He does now.
More people ask him for his autograph. Fellow students whisper and nod in his direction in class. People occasionally interrupt him at dinner with congratulatory words. He was even recognized by fans when he attended rival Utah’s game against USC last week.
“But it is not as crazy as I thought it would be,” Wilson said Wednesday, 11 days after he became the youngest player to ever start at quarterback for BYU.
Wilson, who turned 19 in August, will make his second start Saturday when BYU (4-3) plays host to Northern Illinois (4-3) at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Huskies have a much better defense than Hawaii did and a lot more game film on Wilson to study, so the freshman knows the level of difficulty will increase immensely.
“It will be a good challenge for us on how well we execute, how well we pick things up, how tough we are and the kind of team we really are,” he said.
Wilson acknowledged that his life off the field changed Oct. 7, when he learned he’d start against Hawaii. But he has vowed to remain the same person and work even harder at practice and in the film and weight rooms, if that’s possible.
“I am sure people [consider him a celebrity now], but I try to avoid everything,” Wilson said. “I try to be where my feet are. I don’t look at Twitter. I don’t look at Instagram. I just try to stay with the guys I am personally close with and not let anybody else who is trying to come close and talk to [me] because of football or whatever it is. I just [try to] stay humble and be where my feet are.”
Two days after Wilson got the starting nod and as word gradually leaked out that he was new Big Man on Campus in Provo, his cell phone beeped continually with words of support, congratulations and advice from his friends and family members, many of whom are or were Ute fans because his father, Mike, played defensive tackle for the Utah and the family still has season tickets.
Wilson wasn’t even aware that his mother, Lisa, posted a video on Twitter the other day from last Christmas, a week after he signed, in which family members sang the BYU fight song at a party in a show of support.
“It is comforting to know that you have a big support [group] of family and friends,” he said. “It is comforting for me to know that I am doing this all for them.”
As for all the recognition around town, Wilson says “people do make a bigger deal out of it than I think it is,” but appreciates the notoriety and is learning to deal with it.
“I am just a normal kid,” he said. “That sort of stuff is crazy. I do think it is a cool experience, though.”
As for Mangum, the former BMOC, he spoke glowingly of Wilson on Wednesday, saying he is not surprised that his roommate on road trips played well against Hawaii.
“We are friends, first and foremost,” Mangum said, downplaying any awkwardness the switch may have caused. “We are teammates, and that’s what matters most. We are not going to let what happens on the field get in the way of that.”
NORTHERN ILLINOIS AT BYU
When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
Quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Wednesday that the move was made because the Cougars weren’t scoring enough points. Grimes likened the situation to a basketball team where the point guard may be shooting a high percentage and avoiding turnovers, but the offense isn’t running well enough through him.
“There were a lot of guys who were to blame for our lack of production in those last couple of games,” Grimes said. “The other part of it was Zach just showing he was ready. I give him and [Roderick] a lot of credit, because Zach’s performance last week just didn’t happen because he prepared really hard last week. It was because he was being prepared and getting himself ready for that the last eight months.”
Roderick said the decision wasn’t easy and he lost sleep over it. He was impressed with Wilson’s poise and pocket presence against UH, but also knows that NIU presents a bigger challenge defensively.
“Our next opponent has seen a full game of film on him now,” Roderick said. “They will know a little bit more about who he is. He might have caught Hawaii off guard a little bit, with his athleticism. Northern Illinois is going to know some of the things that he did well. I think there is still quite a bit of offense, left, and he still has got quite a bit of things left in his bag, too, that haven’t been shown. He will be fine.”
Having made the switch, coaches will be patient with Wilson and allow for some freshman mistakes, Roderick said.
“I don’t ever want guys to feel like they have a short leash,” Roderick said. “I mean, you can’t play quarterback if you feel like the first mistake you make you are out, and the next guy is in. We definitely don’t ever want to have a musical chairs situation going on. Guys have to play with confidence, and they have to know they can play through a mistake. And that’s not an easy balance to make.
“It is a very difficult position to play,” Roderick continued. “It is probably the hardest position in sports. So you’ve got to have a chance to put together a body of work that gives us an idea of who you are, and that’s what we are trying to do.”
Now if Wilson can play like Aaron Rodgers, that’s all the better.
ABOUT ZACH WILSON
• Passed for 2,986 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 752 yards his senior season at Draper’s Corner Canyon High in 2017, then graduated early so he could participate in spring camp at BYU
• Originally committed to Boise State, but decommitted after a last-minute push by BYU and other schools and signed with the Cougars last December
• His father, Michael Wilson, played defensive tackle for the University of Utah
• Turned 19 in August and became the youngest player to ever start at quarterback for BYU on Oct. 13 against Hawaii and threw for 194 yards and three touchdowns with one interception