Freshman honorees Empey, Wilson look to 2019

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Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson runs for the end zone against Boise State Nov. 3. (BYU Photo/Jaren Wilkey)

BYU center James Empey and quarterback Zach Wilson received notable end of season accolades following impressive freshman campaigns. Empey was recognized as a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, and Wilson was named to the Touchdown Club of Columbus’ 2019 Players to Watch list.

“I was excited. It’s an honor to be recognized like that, but I was mostly excited for the team,” Empey said. “We’re all a bunch of young guys so to have one of our freshmen get noticed is exciting looking forward to this next year. It really could have been anyone.”

Empey is BYU’s 13th Freshman All-American since 1993, successfully filling the void left by former four-year starter and current Kansas City Chief Tejan Koroma. Empey was one of four underclassmen to start on the offensive line for the Cougars last season, and the American Fork native looks to continue the unit’s established “rhythm.”

“Offensive line play is all about rhythm. As you play with each other, you gain that rhythm and are able to communicate and be on the same page more often,” Empey said. “Going into next year with a bunch of guys that have played together already will hopefully let us pick up right where we left off and get better in spring ball and fall camp.”

Empey said he hopes the offensive line continues its rhythm with offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, a longtime line coach heading into his second season calling plays for the Cougars. Empey credited Grimes for the offensive improvement last year.

“Coach Grimes is awesome. He’s taught us a lot and is very detail oriented with a very high standard for us,” Empey said. “That has helped a lot with what we’re trying to do, not just as a line, but as a whole offense where everybody is held accountable and can create opportunities for each other.”

Empey and the young offensive line were instrumental in opening up holes for the team’s running backs, with the Cougars running for over 2,000 collective yards in 2018. 

“It’s no secret that if you can run the ball, that you have a certain control over the game. So when you run the ball effectively it just makes our offense so much more dimensional,” Empey said. “A bunch of our backs are returning so we’re really excited to keep working with them.”

Wilson, who will be well protected under center by Empey and company next year, said he sees his recognition as an opportunity to further improve.

“I’ve never been a part of any (list) like that before, so it’s a really cool experience,” Wilson said. “It makes me realize that this offseason is a big deal and that I have to work hard to have a good year next year. We need to make sure we’re in the weight room every single day and doing more outside the program.” 

Taking over the starting job midway through the season, Wilson threw for 1,578 yards with 12 touchdowns to just three interceptions over nine games. He capped his rookie season with a dominant bowl performance over Western Michigan, throwing for 317 yards with four touchdowns and zero incompletions. 

“I didn’t even know that I didn’t have an incompletion until they pulled me out at the end,” Wilson said. “A lot of the credit should go to my team. We had a lot of good execution all the way around, especially in the third quarter.”

A number of close losses in the season stick out for Wilson as the separation from being a good team rather than a great team.

“At times I think I could have played better and finished games better,” Wilson said. “Personally, I feel that we should have only lost two games as a team for what we were capable of. We have a lot to prove for this next year.”

Offseason recruiting is in full swing and Wilson has become part of the effort to enlist young talent to join his offense, including Under Armour All-American wide receiver and BYU commit Chase Roberts from American Fork.

“I know recruiting is a big deal. I’ve been helping out with a lot of that and talking to a lot of different guys, so hopefully this next class is invested in wanting to make this team something special,” Wilson said. “We’ll have more skill sets around at different positions. I’m excited that we have those guys coming in.”

Wilson’s hopes are high for 2019, especially with the challenge of beginning the season against Pac-12 powerhouses Utah, USC and Washington at home, along with a tough SEC road game at Tennessee.

“I hope that we can be a top-15 ranked team, which I think that we can,” Wilson said. “We have a tough schedule at first but I think we can win all of those games. I think that’s our goal as a team, to push to show that BYU is back to being what it always was.”

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