Although he certainly didn’t seek out the recognition and doesn’t fully embrace the idea that he is a trailblazer, Jaren Hall is proud of the fact that he became the first African American to start a football game at quarterback for Brigham Young University, getting the nod in October 2019 against South Florida after Zach Wilson sustained a fractured thumb.
It is just that Hall’s aspirations for the 2021 season are somewhat different.
The redshirt sophomore from nearby Spanish Fork wants to replace the NFL-bound Wilson as the Cougars’ full-time starter at their marquee position, and duplicate the feats that made his teammate a likely top five pick in April’s draft.
“Zach put in the work and he’s going to get what he deserves,” Hall told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview last week. “It just shows that anybody that puts in the work can achieve great things. Now it is ‘next man up,’ and that might as well be me.”
So “laser-focused” on filling Wilson’s shoes is the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Hall that he has decided to not play baseball this spring and hone in solely on his football skills. The all-around athlete played center field for BYU in 2019 and in 2020 before that season got cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
Having missed the entire 2020 football season with what he calls a “lower body injury,” Hall said he is bypassing baseball “to give my body a rest” and put everything he has into beating out fellow candidates Baylor Romney, Jacob Conover and Sol-Jay Maiava-Peters for the starting quarterback position next fall.
BYU fans should get ready for one of the most wide-open starting quarterback derbies in recent memory.
“Football, with workouts, and baseball, with workouts and all of the above, is just so taxing on my body,” Hall said. “That was my experience this past year. Running from one (sport) to the other, it just comes around to bite you in the end, so I am just going to take some time off from baseball and let my body rest.”
Hall isn’t completely ruling out baseball in the future — “To close the door on something wouldn’t be wise,” he said — but it is clear that he believes football is his ticket to a pro career.
“I am just going to focus on football and the opportunities I have there, and we will see what happens,” he said. “Football is what feels right, right now.”
But is his body right?
Hall said he’s “all healed up now, although it took a little longer than anticipated,” and he “will be able to go” when spring football camp opens in early March.
Watching Wilson’s success, and wondering
Fall camp for BYU opened in late July last year with plenty of uncertainty, seeing as how the Cougars weren’t sure who they were going to play. For Hall, questions swirled about his health. It became apparent that first week of camp that his body wasn’t quite right.
He doesn’t like to get into specifics, but he says a “chronic, hidden injury” that happened over time plagued his “lower body” in a “certain area” and came from “overuse from playing both baseball and football.”
“It just got bad enough that I really couldn’t perform at my best, and then got so bad that I couldn’t really perform at all,” he said. “My body just kind of gave out in that area, and I couldn’t do anything else. I had been dealing with it for months.”
Surgery wasn’t required, but the decision was made to shut it down. Having entered the summer with legitimate hopes of unseating Wilson for the starting QB job — coaches had insisted the race was wide open after Hall and Romney both performed well in 2019 when Wilson was injured — Hall was relegated to holding a clipboard on the sidelines and signaling in plays.
For the first time since he returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Roseville, California, Hall went months without participating in a competitive athletic event. Before his mission, the son of former BYU running back Kalin Hall had been involved in a sport since he was 5 or 6, he said.
“It was tough, especially for the first little bit,” Jaren Hall said. “First time in my life I didn’t have any sports in my life on a daily basis, aside from my mission. Emotionally, it was tough. But it made me toughen up quite a bit and just find more outside interests to fill that gap.”
Always looking for positives, Hall said being sidelined enabled him to focus on his school work, his plans for life after football, and spend more time with his wife, former Utah Valley University soccer star Breanna McCarter.
The couple is expecting their first child the first week of July, a daughter.
Hall decided he didn’t want to go to medical school after all, and changed his major from exercise science to exercise and wellness.
“I am just going to finish that out, and whenever football concludes down the road, I will hopefully come back and get my master’s if need be and get in health administration and get into managing a hospital, or something along those lines,” he said. “That’s what I am focused on as of now.”
Hall was still with the team every day, attending practices and meetings, so he had a front-row seat to the 11-1 season and Wilson’s rise from a relatively unknown quarterback fighting for his starting job to a Heisman Trophy candidate and record-setting BYU QB.
His biggest takeaway from Wilson’s ascension: Hard work pays off.
“Hey man, when you work as hard as that dude did, that’s what you deserve,” Hall said. “I am not surprised. Just coming out of quarantine, you could see the difference in him.”
Hall said he and the other QBs drew inspiration from Wilson’s success.
“Zach is the product of working hard when you could be relaxing,” he said. “He focused so hard on his game, and it was apparent. He made a lot of trips out to California, just put in the work. He’s getting what he deserves.”
Ready for the BYU spotlight
Before he became a three-sport star at Utah County’s Maple Mountain High, Hall began wearing a rubber wristband that says “Eyes Up” on one side and “Do the Work” on the other.
And he started working with Dustin Smith, a former college baseball player who founded a private quarterback training company called QB Elite with former BYU star Ty Detmer. Smith also started a nonprofit program called Especially for Athletes that teaches high school and college student-athletes to use the attention they garner in positive ways for themselves and their communities.
Hall has been heavily involved in EFA, which puts on assemblies at junior highs and high schools. He’s also worked for years with Smith, who is to Hall what former BYU and NFL quarterback John Beck and QB3D is to the aforementioned Wilson.
“I have been training with Dustin since I was in the eighth grade,” Hall said. “Not playing baseball this spring, I will just work on my craft with him and I am hoping it will make a big difference, and I believe it will. Dustin Smith is my guy.”
Former BYU and NFL quarterback Max Hall and former NFL QBs Kurt Warner, Koy Detmer and Mark Brunell also work at QB Elite camps.
“Jaren is one of the guys that really took to our message, that sports can be more if we will do the work to make it more than just touchdowns and 3-pointers and social media likes,” Smith told the Deseret News. “Unfortunately, we have polluted the real pureness of sports and team, with ‘market yourself, look at me, and the social media world we live in.’ And it is sad.
“Kids like Jaren, they love the game, they love the sport, they love the team aspect of it. It is not about the hype and the attention and the pats on the back,” Smith continued. “It is about playing with his teammates and also giving back to the community. That’s what makes him a special kid.”
‘Not the Grand Canyon’
Naturally, Hall is already being compared to Wilson, who is back in California training with Beck and his company and preparing to likely be the second QB taken in the draft, behind Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
Smith, who has worked out Wilson several times, says Hall is more like former BYU and current New Orleans Saints QB Taysom Hill in terms of playing style and capability.
“Jaren is really good at using his feet to throw, or using his feet to keep plays alive. But when he needs to, he can run with the ball,” Smith said. “I think with the offense they are running, it really fits him. And assuming they’ve got the receiving corps and the linemen to run the other parts of the game, then Jaren can get the ball to everybody and do some pretty exciting things with his athleticism.”
No, Hall does not have Wilson’s arm talent, but very few people on the planet do, Smith said, noting that Wilson “has elite, best of the best” arm talent.
“You are not a first round draft choice if you don’t have incredible arm talent,” Smith said. “There is arm talent, and then there is, ‘You are one of the top five arms in the world, for your age, arm talent.’ And that’s where Zach Wilson is, right? You can count the guys with the type of arm talent Zach has on one hand. The other guys are already in the NFL.”
Smith said Hall needs to work on his accuracy, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a true quarterback. He said because Hall’s father and brother — KJ Hall — were BYU running backs that some folks automatically think Jaren is a running back playing quarterback. That’s just not the case, he said.
“Jaren can make the throws he needs to make,” Smith said. “He’s smart. He is super mature. And he stays within himself. He won’t make stupid throws and make a bad play a disastrous one. He doesn’t get too high or too low. Those are all recipes for a really good quarterback.”
The position is in good hands, Smith said, endorsing new offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and new passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake.
“BYU fans should be optimistic that Jaren can move in and keep it going,” Smith said. “Obviously, Zach is one of the greatest that BYU has had, and those will be big shoes to fill. But it is not like the drop-off from Zach to Jaren is huge. It is not the Grand Canyon, by any means. Jaren’s a good quarterback.”
So who’s going to start?
That Roderick is the new OC and will be making the call on the starting QB decision is not insignificant. Hall’s first college scholarship offer came from Roderick, when he was Utah’s co-offensive coordinator.
Romney was a walk-on and the other quarterback who will give Hall stiff competition, four-star recruit Conover, was first recruited to BYU by Detmer, and then departed OC Jeff Grimes. While Hall was sidelined last season, Romney was getting a lot of action and performing admirably as Wilson’s backup in blowouts, and Conover was drawing rave reviews for his play in practice and knowledge of the playbook.
Hall says he’s ready for a spirited battle.
“Yeah, just as there have been great battles in year’s past,” he said. “BYU has always had great, talented quarterbacks. The quarterback position is always deep. That’s how BYU has always been. That’s why I am here. It is great competition. They are great guys who I enjoy being around and I am excited for spring. I am looking forward to the competition.”
Hall called the other quarterbacks “a good group of guys” who get along really well and pull for each other, be it on the practice field or in the weight room.
“There are no hard feelings, ever,” he said. “It is a business, so you deal with it. Everyone is being mature about it and we all understand we are vying for the same spot and outside of that, you are good to one another and you are brothers. So that is how it is.”
Although he’s dealt with multiple concussions and this most recent injury, Hall isn’t injury prone, Smith says. The QB guru says his pupil knows he won’t be handed the job. That notion drives Hall every day, Smith said.
“Now that he is married, and there is no baseball in the way, and there is no talk of transferring, or going anywhere else, he is entirely focused on this,” Smith said. “He is committed to BYU. He doesn’t have distractions outside of it with all the stuff that comes with being a college student — dating and all that. He has one focus in mind. It is not baseball this spring. It is being the starting quarterback at BYU.”
And making the kind of impact Zach Wilson did.