There was a time Zach Wilson was an afterthought as far as upper-level quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft go. Then, there was a time it was considered preposterous to rank him above former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
We’re now beyond both of those eras, with Wilson slated to be one of the first players off the board and a number of people both in the media and within the NFL willing to put him over Lawrence.
This comes down to a lot of things that can be described in short-form as the Joe Burrow-type of rise Wilson had at BYU this past season. One quarterback Wilson models himself after is Burrow himself—and who wouldn’t want to do that after the success Burrow had at LSU, finishing out an undefeated season with a win over a historically dominant Clemson team?
“He’s definitely someone I’ll be watching in the NFL now, my junior year; he was a huge part of my mental success,” Wilson said. “The ability to throw the ball into spots where maybe you think somebody is covered, but they’re really open. I really did a lot of studying the way that he played the game, and I think he did it all the right way. He knew exactly what he was doing on every play.”
Speaking purely off of evaluating the film, Wilson does many things well from mental processing to making throws into tight windows down the sideline to having pinpoint accuracy that was perfectly reflected by the 73.5% completion percentage he finished 2020 with. That’s because he can quite literally replicate what he sees with his own body. No one has been able to figure out quite how he does it, but it’s something his father has seen in him since he was seven or eight years old.
“I’m sitting in the basement and we have this adjustable basketball hoop, and Zach would just sit and dunk on it all the time,” Mike Wilson said. “But he would sit and watch these little clips on YouTube and he would see these guys doing all these types of dunks. He would watch it on the video and then he would duplicate exactly what they were doing. I don’t know exactly how he does it, but he’s always been able to.”
We’ve seen several comparisons drawn between Zach Wilson and Patrick Mahomes, as well as several other well-respected quarterbacks around the league. Much of that stems from his rare ability to replicate things the way he does.
“He tries to mimic everything [Aaron] Rogers and Mahomes do athletically, the way they throw the ball, stance,” Mike Wilson said.
Other parts of his game are centered around a lot of Burrow’s film, especially when it comes to back-shoulder throws, leading receivers open, and things of that nature.
Mike Wilson says that one day, his son called up a film guy and said that he wanted Burrow’s full season on his iPad. It didn’t take long before he had it uploaded to the device, and he’s now watched every one of those games somewhere in the realm of between five and seven times.
“One day he called me and said ‘I realize if my receiver is completely covered and the defender is not looking at me, he’s got his eyes on the offensive guy, that I can still make that throw,’” Mike Wilson said.
This was one of the key takeaways Zach Wilson had from watching Burrow.
“A lot of times, the receiver is looking back, but the defensive guy is not looking back,” Mike Wilson said. “So he started to hone in on the back shoulder, leading guys open, throwing guys open, and he learned a lot of it from Burrow.”
As for how accurate Zach Wilson has been, a lot of that comes from him adapting to his circumstances in his younger years.
“Zach’s always been accurate,” Mike Wilson said. “In our area, we don’t have a lot of big guys. We’ve never had a lot of big linemen, so his linemen were always undersized. So he had to learn early on to move quickly and throw quickly and throw on the run.”
The Wilsons are a sports-centered family, sacrificing a lot of time and planning vacations and life in general around 7-on-7 tournaments and football.
When they’re not on the field, they’re looking at ways to get better. Aside from Zach Wilson’s ability to mimic what he sees, he also gets no shortage of mental reps at home. He and his father frequently watch recorded football games at home, going through mental exercises to improve Wilson’s ability to read defenses.
“Right before the snap, we’ll talk about it,” Mike Wilson said. “I’ll ask him, ‘What coverage do you think they’re in?’ Stuff like that. We go through these scenarios and play this little game guessing what the defense is in. We look at down and distance and we say something like, ‘Oh, it’s third and two, and they’re in a press.’”
It’s things like this that really get Zach Wilson going and his high school coach, Eric Kjar, says the quarterback might even be a “little obsessed” with perfecting his craft, and that he’s very much seen the benefits of it.
“He’s got a really quick release and a strong arm,” Kjar said. “From a throwing standpoint, mechanically speaking, he’s very efficient. Throwing deep balls, the ball comes out pretty effortlessly for him. He’s always within his mechanics; he doesn’t overstep and he uses his body well. I think he’s about as good as it can get for anybody in that area.”
It didn’t take long for Kjar to realize Zach Wilson was special; in fact, he says he’s not the least bit surprised that Zach is as highly-touted as he is now.
“I don’t have this great frame of reference where I’ve coached all of these guys who have made it to the NFL, but for me, just talent level, he stuck out big time compared to maybe other kids I’ve had in the past,” Kjar said. “His talent level was just different.”
In a way, fate is what ultimately brought Zach Wilson and Kjar together—though it didn’t necessarily start that way. Mike Wilson wanted his son to play for who he deemed to be the best coach in the state, which was Kjar. The school Kjar was coaching at was technically out of the Wilsons’ boundaries, but they sent him there to ensure he was in the best system possible. That system was the one Zach Wilson had been used to for the entirety of his young career, as his father served as his coach from youth football all the way to eighth grade. Mike Wilson ran Kjar’s offense down to every play; there were no differences.
But the school Kjar was at at the time simply wasn’t the right fit for Zach Wilson. He wanted to go back to what he was familiar with, so he played his sophomore and junior year with a different coach. Then, Kjar got the job at Corner Canyon High School. The two were reunited, and Wilson was able to thrive in the offense that fit him like a glove.
“(Coach Kjar) has been a big part of what Zach is,” Mike Wilson said. “He’s helped him get better at throwing the ball, reading defenses.”
Zach Wilson has always been a versatile athlete and was immensely talented at basketball at the high school level. It was to the point his father says he believes he could have been plenty successful in D1 basketball in college if he had chosen to go that route instead of football.
Wilson averaged about 17 points per game on the court when he was heading into his junior year of high school but was garnering more attention in football. From that point, Wilson decided to fully commit himself to football and put on about 25 pounds of muscle, drawing even more attention after that. Still, Wilson was never really highly recruited in high school; something that could largely have to do with the time it took him to physically develop and the state he was playing football in.
“Zach was kind of a late bloomer,” Mike Wilson said. “He played his junior year at 170 and played his senior year at 195. He gained 25 pounds in that time. So, I feel before that, people just thought he was too skinny.
I think a lot of it had to do with that Utah doesn’t really produce quarterbacks. I think a lot of big schools didn’t look at Zach closely partially just because of the fact he’s from Utah. He started getting some late attention his senior year from bigger schools like Minnesota, Syracuse, Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, places like that.”
With Zach Wilson now all but a lock to go No. 2 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, it’s easy for some to forget about the sheer amount of adversity he faced before he moved up the ranks. In his senior year of high school, Wilson suffered a high-ankle sprain that caused him to miss a small handful of games that proved to have a huge impact. And really, he could have missed more games but chose to battle through his injury.
“If he would have been healthy, we would have won the state championship,” Mike Wilson said. “We ended up 12-1 and lost in the state semifinals. Zach played two games in there where he couldn’t even run. He just stood in the pocket and threw it. We lost our threat of Zach’s mobility.”
It’s always been evident that Zach Wilson is more gifted than most athletes that play at the college level, but his father says it really became evident Zach was a future NFL talent on December 21, 2018. BYU was playing Western Michigan that day—a day when Wilson was quite literally perfect by definition. Wilson put on a memorable performance, completing 18-of-18 pass attempts for 317 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions as the Cougars cruised to a smooth 49-18 victory over the Broncos. But a sense of concern quickly overtook the sense of magic from the win in the following days.
“We were in Utah and it was Christmas time,” Mike Wilson said. “Me and my boys went to the gym to throw at an indoor facility. It was two days after the bowl game, and I remember that Zach didn’t want to throw the football.”
This was baffling to hear coming out of a player who had always shown so much commitment and dedication, constantly looking for ways to improve.
As Mike Wilson explains: “I was like, ‘Dude, what do you mean you don’t want to throw the football?’”
“My arm hurts,” Zach Wilson replied. “My arm hurts. I’m not sure why, but it has for a while.”
Zach Wilson had been playing through the injury, and his parents weren’t exactly sure what the issue was. After that day in the gym, Mike Wilson says he called the trainers at BYU and said they needed to get an MRI on Zach Wilson’s shoulder. Roughly three days later, the results from the MRI showed that he had a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Zach Wilson underwent surgery in January 2019 and basically spent that whole spring and summer rehabbing and trying to get ready for the upcoming season.
Two weeks before fall camp rolled around and Zach Wilson could only throw the football for about 15 yards. Really, he could hardly throw the ball at all. His family feared he may not be able to play out the season the way they had envisioned.
“I asked myself how he was going to play, we thought he might have to redshirt,” Mike Wilson said. “Then, he gets further through fall camp and he’s throwing a little farther, maybe 20-25 yards. The coaches did a really good job from that point and then about a week later, he’s throwing for 30 yards or so.”
Just before the season opener against Utah, Zach Wilson could throw it 40-50 yards. It was shocking to see him come so far in such a short period of time, but he was still nothing close to what he had been before the injury. His father says he played out that whole season at “about 80% arm strength,” though he was still doing a respectable job at the helm. But it didn’t take long for Wilson to face yet another setback.
On an interception due to a miscommunication between him and one of his receivers, Zach Wilson fractured the right thumb of his throwing hand while attempting to tackle a Toledo defensive back. Wilson was sidelined for three games and had a pin put in his hand that immobilized it. When he came back and was ready to play again, his shoulder was no longer as much of an issue, but he had lost the muscle in his hand. He could barely grip the football but managed to finish out the season decently despite all he had been through, completing over 62% of his passes for 2,382 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Still, he wasn’t out of the woods yet in yet another way.
“At the end of the season, the coaches said there was a quarterback controversy,” Mike Wilson said.
Zach Wilson had already been working with quarterback trainer John Beck, but at that point, he was driving over to him every weekend to get work in.
“We got five spring practices in at BYU and that’s when they said the quarterback competition was going to happen,” Mike Wilson said. “Things got cut short due to COVID, so they canceled the rest of spring ball and sent the players home.”
With Zach Wilson being Zach Wilson, he took full advantage of an otherwise disadvantageous situation to get himself to where he wanted to be.
“What that enabled Zach to do is that he was about to throw four or five times a week with Beck while he was doing school online,” Mike Wilson said. “It never got in the way, and he was still able to build his schedule in a way that he was still accomplishing what he needed to in school.”
The meetings with Beck didn’t stop when Zach Wilson got back to BYU, either. During the week, Wilson would organize player-run practices. But as soon as the weekend hit, he was making the 20-hour round trip to get time in with Beck, driving back to Provo, Utah, on Sunday.
“He probably did that seven or eight times,” Mike Wilson said. “Maybe 10 times.”
Needless to say, that type of commitment to such a grueling schedule paid off as Zach Wilson prepares to take the reins for the New York Jets in just a matter of months. To most, he is a complete star, a household name. But in his own household, he’s just a normal kid, doing chores the same way his siblings do. When he’s not doing things around the house or working on draft preparation, Wilson does whatever he can to give back to the community; whether it be meeting with those who look up to him or face-timing a young cancer patient who just started his first trials of chemotherapy to remind him to keep going.
Still, it may never make sense to Zach Wilson why he receives so much admiration and why people are so starstruck when they cross paths with him.
“He doesn’t recognize why he’s someone’s favorite player,” Mike Wilson said. “The way he sees himself is just the mindset of, ‘I’m just a 21-year-old kid myself.’”
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