Quarterback Gerry Bohanon once thought he’d never play again. Now, he is the risk worth taking for BYU

Bohanon is competing to be BYU’s starting quarterback, a battle that will define a critical second year in the Big 12.

(John Raoux | AP) Former South Florida quarterback Gerry Bohanon looks for a receiver against Florida on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. Bohanon is in the running for BYU's starting job this fall.

Provo • The Florida football field was essentially vacant last December when BYU’s top decision makers arrived to gauge their future.

Gerry Bohanon, the star prospect turned major project, was on the field with a few receivers. A month before, Bohanon lay awake at night thinking he’d never play again. He couldn’t even throw a football more than a few dozen times a day without debilitating soreness in his shoulder.

Yet here he was, further removed from the once-bright Sugar Bowl spotlight than he’d ever thought, trying to salvage his career with an impromptu tryout.

BYU’s top offensive analyst, Matt Mitchell, had called asking if he wanted to join the Cougars quarterback competition. They needed a jolt after a 5-7 season. Mitchell and offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick could be on a plane to watch Bohanon throw.

Bohanon pushed his recovery to be ready. He worked up to 60 throws a day, even if it hurt, and ran through every play he used to make as Baylor’s starting quarterback during the workout.

When BYU’s staff left the Florida field, they’d seen enough to make a bet on the former Big 12 star.

Roderick signed off on Bohanon competing with incumbent starter Jake Retzlaff. One of the two would be his leader going into a critical second year in the Big 12.

And now Bohanon has his shot. The quarterback who won a New Year’s Six bowl game over Ole Miss, then fell from grace and transferred to USF, then tore his labrum and was out of the sport, is back. And BYU might need him more than ever.

“I wanted an opportunity,” Bohanon said. “I had the game taken away from me for a year. I have a lot to prove to myself.”

The way back

Bohanon didn’t fully understand why he was the one watching from the sidelines in 2023.

For the majority of his career, Bohanon was billed as a can’t-miss prospect.

Coming out of Earle, Arkansas, in 2017, he was an Elite 11 finalist — a collection of the best young signal callers in the country. He was right there alongside future NFL stars like Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence. Back then, Bohanon could rip a ball 60 yards without blinking.

But at South Florida last year, he struggled to grip a tennis ball.

It stemmed from a torn labrum he suffered in Week 7 of the 2022 season. He was going for an extra yard against Tulane when his shoulder caved in. It was an awful end to a terrible season, where the Bulls went 1-11 and cleared house on the coaching staff.

Bohanon had surgery in November. His career was put on life support months later.

“I didn’t throw a ball for six months,” he said.

Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon (11) scores a touchdown past Kansas State linebacker Da'Quan Patton (5) and defensive back AJ Parker (12) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Manhattan, Kan., Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

When fall camp rolled around, his days looked like a person trying to walk again. His first day back, he couldn’t throw a tennis ball more than 10 yards.

“It was dying,” he said of the ball flight. “I couldn’t do it.”

Doctors put him on a plan to go from throwing a tennis ball to eventually a weighted ball. Some days, he was told to stand in front of a wall just feet away and throw at maximum velocity into the surface. It built his strength without trying to push the ball down field.

By November 2023, Bohanan wasn’t convinced his shoulder would ever come back. He waited a year and he was still struggling to throw a football 70 times a week without extreme pain. And USF moved on without him, surprising everyone with a 7-6 season and a bowl game win.

“I didn’t think I had enough,” he said. “I got sore, fatigued. You try to increase those [throwing] numbers and after that you’re like, ‘I don’t feel good. Can I do this?’”

Even in his lowest moments prior, Bohanon never questioned if he had the physical tools. When he went to Baylor as a four-star recruit, he was used almost immediately as a runner. He appeared in 10 games as a sophomore and accounted for five touchdowns in the Bears 11-win campaign. By his fourth year, head coach Dave Aranda handed him the keys and he won a Big 12 title.

When Aranda came to him a year later and said he was giving the job to freshman quarterback Blake Shapen, it stung. But it wasn’t for a lack of talent. USF gobbled him up and was ready to win.

But after his injury, all of that felt like it was over.

“In the moment, you don’t really see it. You’re like, ‘Why does this feel this way?’” he said. “I just wanted to feel normal after this much time.”

Why would BYU take a risk?

Roderick and the offensive staff didn’t go into the last transfer window dead set on taking a quarterback.

Whereas in 2022, when Roderick went through at least 25 names in the portal before landing on former starter Kedon Slovis, this time it was only a couple.

“Not that many,” Roderick said. “If the right guy comes, it is the right fit for our program, then we’ll consider it.”

And while Bohanon’s health was a risk, it makes more sense in context.

BYU’s offense wasn’t Big 12 ready in 2023. The running game was dismal and the quarterback play, for the most part, underachieved. Slovis struggled to move the ball before he got hurt. Retzlaff came in for the final four games and showed flashes, but was turnover prone. Against Oklahoma, he threw a 99-yard pick-six that cost BYU a program-altering win and a shot at the postseason.

This offseason, BYU couldn’t gift Retzlaff the job and expect to get better.

And Bohanon checked plenty of boxes. He’d taken care of the ball. He had Big 12 experience. He ran a similar offense at Baylor. The Bears offensive coordinator, Jeff Grimes, used to work at BYU with Roderick.

“It’s similar,” Roderick said in the spring. “But the terminology is completely different.”

Plus, head coach Kalani Sitake liked the culture fit. He saw a player with a “different perspective” now that he’d been away. This was a more mature quarterback than the one BYU recruited two years before when he left Baylor.

Baylor quarterback Gerry Bohanon, left, scores past UTSA linebacker Ladarian McFarland, right, in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Waco, Texas. (Jose Yau/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

At one of BYU’s final spring practices, Bohanon stepped into a throw in the indoor practice facility and it sailed over the receivers’ head. It was incomplete by a few feet but it flew 60 yards in the air. Internally, Bohanon took it as a positive.

Five months before, maybe even a few weeks before, he wouldn’t have had the arm strength to make that throw. Now, it is starting to come back.

As to whether he will get to show it in a game next year, that is still to be determined.

“He understood nothing was going to be handed to him,” Sitake said in February. “This was going to be a battle. You have to win the spot. I don’t know who is going to be our starting quarterback. I have no idea who that is going to be right now.”

That is fine with Bohanon. He’s just happy to have the opportunity.