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BYU quarterback Zach Wilson goes to Jets as No. 2 pick in Thursday’s NFL draft; he’s Cougars’ highest pick ever

A year ago, Wilson was fighting for the starting position in Provo. Now, he’s the highest drafted Cougar ever.

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Brigham Young Cougars Zach Wilson takes the field with the team as starting quarterback as Brigham Young University hosts Hawaii at Lavell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Saturday Oct. 13, 2018.

The wait is over — Zach Wilson is officially a Jet.

The New York Jets selected the former BYU quarterback with the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft in Cleveland, on Thursday night.

“It was awesome,” Wilson told the Jets Overtime Special. “It was everything I’d hoped and dreamed for. I’ve worked my whole life for this situation, so I was so excited getting that phone call. It was amazing. I love all those guys in that room. What a special moment to share with my family.”

The former BYU quarterback was one of 13 prospects on site at the NFL’s draft headquarters in Cleveland. After hearing his name called, Wilson donned a Jets cap, took the stage, excitedly slapped hands with Jets fans and hugged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“The things that we value at how a quarterback plays — he checks every box,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh said after the first round ended. “You talk about arm strength [and] accuracy: check. Ability to work off schedule and make plays: check. Fearless in the pocket: check. Ability to recall, process, make the right decision, get the ball where it needs to go without turning the ball over. … He’s a special young man. His mental horsepower, like [general manager] Joe [Douglas] just mentioned, is through the roof. We’re really excited to have him [be] a part of the New York Jets.”

Wilson’s selection came after the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence as the No. 1 overall pick, and was followed by the San Francisco 49ers selecting North Dakota State’s Trey Lance as the No. 3 pick. Three picks — three quarterbacks.

“I’m pumped,” Wilson said. “This is exactly what I’m hoping for. It was a very similar situation to what I went in at BYU, so I can’t wait to get started.”

The festivities bring to an end one of the biggest surprises and most polarizing athletes throughout the draft season. After all, a year ago, Wilson wasn’t considered an NFL draft pick — he was fighting for the starting job in Provo.

Wilson played three seasons for the Cougars, but he needed only one to catch the eyes of NFL scouts and coaches. The Draper native showed a glimmer of what was to come his freshman year, when he became the youngest freshman quarterback to start for BYU and finished the season with a perfect Potato Bowl game, but struggled with injuries his sophomore year.

However, Wilson loves a good competition.

Knowing he’d have to prove to be the best man for the starting gig, going up against Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney, Wilson took advantage of the constant curve balls the pandemic threw at him. Wilson made multiple trips — mostly by way of 10-hour, one-way road trips — to Southern California, where he trained with former BYU quarterback John Beck at 3DQB.

The time off was beneficial to Wilson, who was able to focus solely on his training.

Then he came back to Provo and helped led the Cougars to their best season in more than a decade. BYU finished 2020 with an 11-1 record, while Wilson threw for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns and added 254 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

“I was really happy for him,” said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, who attended the draft along with Cougar head coach Kalani Sitake and passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake. “A year ago, he was fighting to prove that he was our starting quarterback. There is a high level of expectation at the position of quarterback everywhere but I think at BYU the expectations are pretty tough. He showed a lot of grit and toughness to battle through it. It shows his character too. He never flinched or felt entitled about it, he just said okay let’s compete. I am happy for him because of the way he handled it, the adversity of being injured last year and losing a couple of games that people thought we shouldn’t have lost. I am happy to see him have success.”

With the No. 2 pick Thursday, Wilson became the highest-drafted player in BYU football history.

The Corner Canyon High School product finished his BYU career having played 30 games and started 28. He completed 566 of 837 passes for 7,652 yards and 56 touchdowns with a 162.91 efficiency rating. Wilson added 212 rushing attempts for 642 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Wilson also collected a handful of postseason honors following the 2020 season: Pro Football All-America Second Team, Phil Steele All-America honorable mention, Co-Polynesian College Player of the Year and No. 8 in the Heisman Trophy voting.

Wilson was also a Manny Award Finalist, Walter Camp Player of the Year Semifinalist, Maxwell Award Semifinalist and Davey O’Brien Semifinalist in 2020.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Local artist Aljay Fuimaono begins adding the New York Jets jersey on the mural of BYU quarterback Zach Wilson that he painted on the side of Guru’s Cafe in Provo, following the NFL Draft announcement on Thursday, April 29, 2021.

Wilson finished the 2020 season ranked No. 2 nationally in points responsible for (264), passing efficiency (196.4) and completion percentage (73.5); No. 3 in passing yards (3,692), passing touchdowns (33), yards per pass attempt (10.99) and points responsible for per game (22.0); No. 4 in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (10); No. 5 in passing yards per completion (14.95); No. 8 in total offense (328.8); and No. 10 in passing yards per game (307.7).

By the end of the season, Wilson had also broken the BYU record, previously held by Steve Young, for completion percentage — completing 73.5 percent of his passes in 2020.

“I think that’s just another example of him going out there and making a statement, doing what he does best, which is just putting his head down and going to work,” Fesi Sitake said. “I think this is, obviously, on a much bigger scale. There’s a lot of people who might be questioning him or who may wonder what he’s going to do, and I know he’s more than up for the challenge and super excited for the opportunity.”

While Wilson set the record for highest drafted BYU player ever, it almost didn’t happen.

With a former Utah defensive lineman as a father, Wilson grew up a die-hard Utes fan. But Utah passed on Wilson, leading the under-recruited quarterback to sign with Boise State.

But then he changed his mind and Wilson instead signed with BYU.

The rest is history.

Now, Wilson is no longer being looked over. He’s center stage with all lights on him. But he still has plenty to prove — to himself and to others. That story is only beginning.

“The guy just loves football and I just can’t wait to see what he does for the New York Jets,” said Kalani Sitake. “I can’t wait to watch him go live out his dreams and accomplish whatever he wants. He has the right setup for everything it takes to be successful.”

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