New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson once trucked a linebacker and sent him away in an ambulance. He made deep, back-shoulder throws with such velocity that people actually heard them whistling when they arrived. He was a fantastic high school player, leading Corner Canyon to the Utah Class 5A state semifinals in 2017.
But his feats in the picturesque communities surrounding Salt Lake City didn’t spark any buzz of future stardom in the NFL. Quite frankly, those who faced Wilson four-plus years ago never thought they would be watching him on Sundays this fall.
ESPN interviewed five coaches who opposed Wilson in his senior year at Corner Canyon in Draper, Utah, and they all spoke positively — some effusively — about what he did to them on the field. They followed his career at BYU and, to a man, they watched on TV with pride when he was selected No. 2 overall by the Jets this past April.
Who knew? They didn’t. No one did.
In a recruiting class headlined by fellow quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, both 2021 first-round picks, Wilson never made the national radar. He was the No. 70 quarterback prospect in the country and No. 2 in his own state, behind Washington State signee Cammon Cooper, according to 247 Sports. That he became an NFL draft pick is a story of determination and how the recruiting machine sometimes fails to find the late bloomers.
Before he arrived in Gotham as a perceived franchise savior, and before the storybook finish to his college career at BYU, Wilson was a dual-threat standout known for his competitiveness. He missed two games with an ankle injury at Corner Canyon, but rushed for a team-high 719 yards and eight touchdowns for the 11-1 Chargers. His passing stats were good, but not video-game numbers — 170-for-297, 2,976 yards, 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Utah is known for churning out linemen, not skill players. In fact, the state’s high schools have produced five NFL quarterbacks in the Super Bowl era, according to ESPN data — ex-Jet Luke Falk, Bruce Hardy, Jim McMahon, Scott Mitchell and Gifford Nielsen.
Wilson is a trend-buster in a way no one saw coming, at least that’s what those opposing coaches said.
Early reports on Wilson: ‘You could see the potential’
Ryan Bullett, Brighton High (Cottonwood Heights, Utah): “We went over to Corner Canyon in the summer to scrimmage them in 7-on-7 when [Wilson] was just a sophomore. We knew what was coming. You could see the potential then.”
Jon Lehman, Skyridge (Salt Lake City): “He’s got a really elastic arm. He can really sling it down the field, far downfield, with good arm strength at weird angles. That was true of him back then. He could have two guys around his feet and still put the ball 50 yards downfield.”
Cary Whittingham, Timpview (Provo, Utah): “Early in his career, he had to learn how to manage that ad-libbing stuff. He did that a little too much. He tried to make too much happen and those are the mistakes that will kill you. Eventually, his gears shifted. He got coached up. He learned how to clean that up and be a poised quarterback.”
Brody Benson, Highland (Salt Lake City): “Very composed in the pocket. Went through his progressions very well. He’s not one of those quarterbacks who would lock on his No. 1 receiver and telegraph the play.”
Jeremy Hill, Orem (Orem, Utah): “I watched him at the Pylon Passing League in Las Vegas [a 7-on-7 competition]. We’re not allowed to coach those games, so I was spectating on the sideline, just watching some of my players. I remember a few times, he threw some deep balls and you could actually hear the ball — the whoosh at the end. I haven’t seen many high school kids throw a ball like that.”
Blair Angulo, 247 Sports (West Region analyst): “The Nick Sabans, the Dabo Swinneys, the Ryan Days of the world, they’re trying to find the next big thing as freshmen and sophomores. If you’re not at that level yet at that point, you get overlooked. That’s what happened with Zach. His curve was on a different timeline than the typical curve you see at the quarterback position at the prep level.”
Senior year at Corner Canyon: ‘Doing what he does’
Wilson’s team breezed through a 9-0 regular season. Their most competitive game was a 27-14 win against Orem. Corner Canyon won two playoff games, but its undefeated season was ruined by Skyridge, which won 34-33 in the state semifinals.
Lehman: “Opening drive of the game, which caused us to rethink things a little bit, [Wilson] threw a back-shoulder ball at 30 yards that was like a first-level throw. He made a bunch of those throws at BYU, but it’s not a throw high schoolers make very often. I looked at our guys and said, ‘If we give him the opportunity to make that throw, he’s going to make that throw all day and we’re in tough shape.'” (Wilson passed for 341 yards in the state semifinal loss.)
Congratulations to @jamespalmer6_ for being awarded the Scholar-Leader-Athlete award by the National Football Foundation. James is one of the best competitors and teammates I’ve ever coached. pic.twitter.com/QmNs5NgIHl
— Jon Lehman (@JonLehman) May 12, 2021
Lehman: “I don’t know if the play showed up on YouTube, but he scored a touchdown from [13 yards] that was one of the most spectacular running plays I’ve seen in high school. It was really a scramble. He made a few guys miss, he walked a tightrope down the sideline and he finished on the pylon — a really, really impressive play. Doing what he does.”
Benson (describing a 49-yard touchdown pass that traveled 55 air yards in the quarterfinals): “He got knocked down as soon as he threw the ball, and I remember him looking through the pile, getting up to see if the play was completed. He wasn’t really concerned about himself, the shots that he took. He wanted to know if the ball was on target.” (Corner Canyon beat Highland 37-0.)
Hill: “I know we had a lot of pressure on him — seven sacks, I think — and we picked him off a couple of times, but he never got flustered by it. I remember thinking, ‘That’s such a tough kid.'”
Whittingham: “It was windy, rainy and cold — very rainy. It was not conducive to the passing game, but they were still going to pass. They came out and hit us, fast and hard.” (Wilson passed for 155 yards and ran for another 147 in a 44-7 win against Timpview.)
Bullett: “First play of the game, he threw a 9-route down the sideline and it was right on the money. I had a DB right on the guy. After they scored a touchdown and the DB came back to the sideline, I told him, ‘You played that perfect. The ball was thrown where you couldn’t get it.'”
Bullett: “We got down 21 and he ran right in on a quarterback draw. Our kids were amped up, thinking they were going to get a shot on him, and he just kind of ran by them. No one even got him dirty.”
Whittingham: “Let me tell you a little story. [Wilson] gets flushed out of the pocket and he starts running. Our middle linebacker steps up to take him on and, rather than dodge him, he just runs our middle linebacker over. Our middle linebacker was actually hurt and laid on the field for a long time. He was taken off in an ambulance to the hospital. At the end of the day, he wasn’t injured — he was stunned! He was literally destroyed by the quarterback. At that point, I thought, ‘Game over.'”
Bullett: “He hurt his ankle in our game [in the third quarter]. He kind of got dragged down sideways a little bit and he got up limping. I remember because Boise State was there to watch him. That’s where he was committed to, and the Boise State guys were standing on our sideline, and they were like, ‘Uh-oh.’ They were up big, but he was a competitor and wanted to get back in there and show ’em how good he was.” (Wilson didn’t return in the 52-13 win over Brighton.)
Hill: “He’s not the biggest kid, and that’s the one thing I took away from our game: I thought he might get a little banged up and that’s what happened.”
Benson: “We knew he was going to be a little bit limited in the pocket because of the ankle. We felt like we would have a good opportunity to get to him and get hits on him — and we did. But the thing that stuck with me, what impressed me, was the kid just bounced up. I mean, he was obviously playing with pain, but he stayed composed.”
Bullett: “Nobody stopped him the whole year. The ankle sprain stopped him. That was about it.”
Wilson shatters expectations
After his senior season, Wilson changed his mind and committed to BYU. It was big news in Utah, but there were no ripples beyond the state because he wasn’t considered a four- or five-star recruit by the top recruiting services. He was only the 13th overall prospect in Utah, according to 247 Sports, which tabbed future Detroit Lions first-round pick Penei Sewell as the state’s best prior to the 2021 draft. Less than four years after his final high school game, Wilson became the highest-drafted quarterback in Jets history. Soon, he will sign a $35 million contract, fully guaranteed.
Benson: “At the time, I thought he’d do a nice job at Boise, based on the type of athletes they had down there. To be honest with you, no, I didn’t think he’d be a kid that was going to make his way and break into the NFL, definitely not as a first-round pick. He definitely exceeded my expectations of what I thought he was capable of.”
Whittingham (a former BYU linebacker and 1987 Cincinnati Bengals draft pick): “When you’re talking about a future first-round NFL guy, you have to think when you’re playing him that he’s the most dominant guy on the field, like a man throwing kids around. Out of his quarterback play, I never really imagined that. I knew he was good, but who’s going to imagine a first-rounder? You’d have to think you were watching [Green Bay Packers QB] Aaron Rodgers.”
— Kyle Whittingham (@UtahCoachWhitt) May 30, 2015
Hill: “I knew he’d do some good stuff on Saturdays, but if you would’ve told me he’d be the No. 2 overall pick in a couple of years, I honestly at that time wouldn’t have believed you.”
Bullett: “You just knew he was a good athlete when you played against him. His arm just developed and developed and developed.”
Lehman: “Zach was a normal kid. He had good length, decent height (6-foot-2), but it wasn’t like he was a 22-year-old playing against 17-year-olds in terms of his development. No, I didn’t expect the first-round looks, but he was always really talented.”
Angulo: “We’re starting to see a transition in the state of Utah. Now we’re starting to see a lot more offseason football emphasis in the state. Quarterbacks and wide receivers are going out and playing 7-on-7 tournaments and they’re playing in camps like Zach did. He started to set a blueprint on how you can make it out of the state of Utah as a skill position player.”
Benson: “I was watching the draft, just to see where he went, especially with all the publicity he was getting going into the draft. Definitely rooting for a hometown kid. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of kids go on and play [in the NFL], so I know that feeling as a coach.”
Bullett: “Everybody in the state of Utah was excited.”
Lehman: “It’s affirmation for all the hard work that the kids put in. He’s a good kid from a good family. You like to see good people succeed.”
Benson: “He’s a grounded kid. I don’t think he’s going to let all the lights and glamor get to him. He’s a tough-enough kid, meaning he’s going to go in and work. I expect him to work for everything that he gets.”