Most next-level athletes coming out of high school looking for a future at Division-I college athletics have two options, accept a college scholarship or go to the junior college route and try to earn a new opportunity.
The newest Hawaii Rainbow Warrior didn’t exactly take either route, but he’s very happy and relieved that it worked out.
“I was a late qualifier,” said Zach Wilson, a 2015 cornerback from Upland High School in California who signed to UH on Tuesday. “My SAT scores came in really late, so I couldn’t tell coaches what I had. By the time they came in, they already had already signed a bunch of guys.”
Schools like Boise State, Fresno State, UCLA and Washington had made contact with him in high school, so he knew he had the ability to get to the next level if given the opportunity. Being a late qualifier left him without a college home by the fall, so he headed to Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California - not to play football, but to take classes in hopes he could find an FBS home without spoiling any of his eligibility.
Several schools reached out to him again, but ultimately passed for a different reason the second time around.
“I actually heard from a lot of schools, just after a while they didn’t talk to me because I was at the junior college but I wasn’t playing this season,” Wilson said. “Instead of playing, I stayed out and decided to grayshirt. Instead of using my years up and going to a university as a four for three, I saved it so I could be a five for four. I would basically be signed as a 2016 recruit. It was frustrating watching everyone else go on to play football, but I kept working out, getting bigger and stronger.”
While many schools reached out, he gained serious interest from two power-five schools, but neither worked out.
“I was talking to Arizona State. I was talking to Nebraska too. I had gone to some of (Nebraska’s) camps and they were serious, but they were deciding between a corner and safety for the scholarship and they went with the safety. Those were the main two schools I had heard from.”
As a grayshirt at Mt. SAC, Wilson couldn’t practice with the team or even be affiliated with them. He began working out and training on his own motivation, getting a personal trainer for his physical abilities and his football skills.
His athletic trainer, Carlos Moore, had an intense workout regimen for him Monday through Friday in five-week programs which included running hills and trails, pool workouts and a daily trip to the weight room.
“I knew if I kept working out, if I kept getting after it and I kept doing everything right, something would happen for me,” Wilson said. “I can’t just put all this effort in and nothing happens for me. I just kept that mindset.”
Finally an opportunity came to fruition when Hawaii reached out to him.
“Hawaii got in contact with me, trying to find out what I was doing and where I was at,” Wilson said. “I was just taking classes and grayshirting, trying to find a scholarship somewhere with a school. Coach Abe (Elimimian) hit me up, talking about the school and what they provide to give me a good feel for the school.”
Wilson has never been to Hawaii before, but he reached out to family members who had been to the islands and others who had been to the campus. Within the last week, he decided that Hawaii would be a good landing spot for him and committed.
“I was thinking, ‘Hawaii is a great place, everybody who has been there tells me it’s beautiful. Why not?’ My personal coach who taught me how to play corner (Rashaun Scott), he played at Boise State. Unfortunately when he played his final game at Hawaii, he tore his ACL. He told me, ‘I still went down to the beach after the game. I had to see it.’
“I thought, ‘Wow, if you would go down to the beach even after a torn ACL after your game, I’m going to have to check it out and see how I like it.’”
Wilson credited Elimimian as his primary recruiter in the process.
“He’s very supportive,” Wilson said. “He tried really hard to get me to come to Hawaii. He kept a good relationship with me the whole time. The other coaches who talked to me (from other schools) were iffy, they would stop talking to me all of a sudden. Coach Abe kept in contact with me, gave me positive thinking, and let me know what he has planned for me and for the university. He has high hopes.
“He said we’ll be playing some man this year and they were looking for a man DB, which fits the bill for me. I plan on going up there and playing some good man defense for him.”
Out of high school was known as a shut-down man coverage cornerback.
“I play really well in man coverage,” Wilson said. “Last year when I was playing at Upland, we played Hart HS who had Trenton Irwin who is currently at Stanford this year. I think he was the only one to catch a touchdown on me all season. He was leading high school in receiving that year and I played man on him all game.
“I come down and I hit, I’m not scared of anybody, I’m not scared to hit a running back if I were to move to safety. I’m versatile. I played wide receiver my freshman and sophomore seasons and they moved me to defense because I was so physical. Because I played wide receiver, I know a lot about routes and how receivers try to set you up.”
Wilson made the decision to commit within the last week, signed his letter of intent on Tuesday and will take a flight to Hawaii on Saturday to prepare for the semester. He will be eligible to participate in spring practice. He is undecided on a major, but is considering something in business.
With his letter of intent signed, sealed and delivered, Wilson’s path to an FBS scholarship paid off after months of uncertainty. He had a message for others in his shoes.
“Never give up,” Wilson said. “People will try to tell you one thing, you might as well go on with something else or just go to junior college. It’s not so bad if you try to do it another way. It doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s if you get there.”