For anyone who has watched former BYU quarterback Zach Wilson do interviews, seeing him respond to questions from reporters Thursday night after being the No. 2 selection by the New York Jets in the 2021 NFL Draft was nothing new.
He was polished, confident and determined.
“I am so excited for the opportunity,” Wilson said. “I know we are going to have something special and I can’t wait to get to work. The whole situation is still so surreal for me. I am soaking in every moment, looking around. This is a blast and a dream come true for me.
“I know the Jets need a good quarterback and a good leader. I have those qualities and I am so excited to go there. I love the coaching staff and everything they have to offer. I can’t wait to get to New York City.”
It makes sense for draftees like Wilson to show enthusiasm and optimism no matter where they are headed or what challenges they face. When a team is reportedly investing around $35 million for a five-year contract like the Jets are with Wilson, it’s worthwhile to make the right public impression.
But in many ways it is a much bigger deal for team decision-makers, since jobs are frequently cemented or lost based on what happens with high draft picks in the results-based world of the NFL.
That means that in some ways New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas, head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur are staking their careers on whether Wilson will be successful.
“He’s got tremendous arm strength and talent,” Saleh said in an interview with team reporter Eric Allen that was posted Thursday night at NewYorkJets.com. “That’s obviously first and foremost. He’s a fearless young man. People call him cocky but I call him confident. He’s got unbelievable mental horsepower. He’s got the ability to process. He can do a lot of things that other people can’t. There is intangible part that he brings with regards to off-schedule throws, off-platform arm angles, all those different things. The natural throwing motion that he has is so easy for him. He’s an exciting young man and we are excited to get our hands on him and get to work with him.”
Saleh has said before that he is looking for players that love the game and so Wilson’s commitment is also something that the Jets head coach finds to be appealing.
“He is a football junkie,” Saleh told Allen. “He studies it relentlessly and is always striving to get better. When you love something so much, you remember every little detail. His ability to go through a five-play drive, a 10-play drive, then get to the sideline and recall everything without even looking at the video — from what we’ve heard — is pretty unique. He’s a special young man and deserving of that No. 2 pick.”
Saleh, who was the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers before taking the head coaching job with the Jets, said that Wilson’s improvisational ability makes things tough on defenses.
“As a defensive play-caller, the worst thing to see is a quarterback move off-schedule,” Saleh said in the interview. “There is no defense for an off-schedule quarterback. You’re just playing street ball. You see these mobile quarterbacks bail out offensive play-callers all the time. To have one here, it’s going to be exciting to see him work.”
Douglas said in the post-first-round press conference that Wilson cemented his position by what he did at his pro day in Provo in late March.
“We’d obviously done a lot of work on him prior to even the season ending, just watching the tape and watching his unbelievable junior year,” Douglas said. “I think ultimately that Pro Day really, really cemented it.
“Not to get into all the nuts and bolts of our process, but a big part of it was just watching his tape with him and him detailing and outlining all the intricate details of his offense in that specific play. Coach LaFleur, Coach Knapp, Coach Calabrese did a great job of running those meetings for every quarterback, but Zach really stood out with his recall, his focus, his intensity, his passion, it all stood out.”
The harsh reality is that at this point, there are no guarantees about what any of the 2021 draft class will do on the field, since factors like injuries, adaptability and overall team strength are impossible to predict.
But for Wilson, his family, his friends and his former coaches at BYU on Thursday night, it was about enjoying the moment as he took that next step.
“It was joy, pure joy,” Cougar assistant coach Aaron Roderick said. “I was really happy for him. 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.”