After 'chaotic' trip to portal, former Utah State starter McCae Hillstead found home at BYU

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PROVO — BYU wasn't looking for another quarterback after wrapping up spring practices with no fewer than five capable signal callers on its roster and a QB1 competition between incumbent Jake Retzlaff and Baylor/USF transfer Gerry Bohanon.

But it's hard to put a price on experience — and that's exactly what McCae Hillstead had.

So as soon as the former Utah State starter hit the transfer portal after Iowa transfer Spencer Petras was named the starter in Logan ahead of Utah transfer Bryson Barnes, Hillstead had offers. Iowa, Cal and Mississippi State reached out, so did a handful of other power conference programs, as well as some top Group of Five teams.

But 10 days after declaring his transfer intent, the 5-foot-10 strong-armed quarterback from Skyridge High announced on social media that he had committed to BYU.

In the words of Gen Z, the vibes were immaculate between Hillstead, offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick and quarterback analyst Matt Mitchell.

"Obviously, going into the transfer portal, you don't know exactly what is going to happen. It was pretty chaotic," Hillstead told ESPN radio in Utah County. "But after looking at some schools and talking with a lot of coaches, I got a good sense that this was a program I wanted to be in. These are definitely great guys I feel a lot of camaraderie with, and a team that I think I can succeed on."

Hillstead appeared in eight games as a true freshman with the Aggies, starting four while completing 59.5% of his passes for 1,062 yards and 11 touchdowns with eight interceptions — including a freshman-record 399 yards in a near-comeback effort against James Madison.

That kind of experience had plenty of programs taking notice of the transfer quarterback. It also led to a handful of takes on local sports radio from Logan to Provo, with several notable voices declaring Hillstead as the future — even if not present — starter at BYU.

Utah State Aggies quarterback McCae Hillstead (10) passes in the second quarter against the Air Force Falcons at Falcon Stadium.
Utah State Aggies quarterback McCae Hillstead (10) passes in the second quarter against the Air Force Falcons at Falcon Stadium. (Photo: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports)

One of those is his quarterback skills trainer, Dustin Smith of QB Elite, who has worked alongside Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Kurt Warner, Koy Detmer, Brandon Doman and Max Hall, among others.

"I think McCae is going to come in there and he's going to take the starting spot this year," Smith said. "He's gonna come in and turn heads right away."

In Hillstead, Smith sees similar qualities as former BYU starters Zach Wilson and Jaren Hall. Hillstead may even be faster than Hall, the current head coach at Spanish Fork High quipped.

"That's not to knock on the other guys that are there, but this kid, if he can stay healthy, he's a very unique talent who can do some things that he's done since he was a sophomore (in high school)," Smith said, referring to the group led by Retzlaff and Bohanon. "He's played in big-time games and he's clutch. He's so humble and he wants to learn. He wants to come see me two or three days a week, and he's driving down to Spanish Fork."

Experience is the ultimate teacher, and it can also be a strong separator. Hillstead has that in spades, who graduated early after winning a 6A state title at Skyridge and played sparingly during the Aggies' spring period while recovering from an ankle injury.

"But going into the summer, I got more familiar with the offense, and as I got into the swing of things in the season, our coach made a quick decision and put me in midway through the Air Force game," added Hillstead, a rising sophomore who also has a redshirt available. "I had some success my true freshman year and learned a lot. I think that's what you get from playing early."

The former Skyridge standout who grew up in Springville has also been working lately with former BYU standouts Jamal Willis and Smith Snowden on footwork, speed and agility drills.

Hillstead joins a quarterback group that also includes former Boise State quarterback Cade Fennegan, Western Michigan transfer Treyson Bourguet, walk-on returned missionary Cole Hagen and true freshman Noah Lugo, in addition to Retzlaff and Bohanon. Between Retzlaff, Bohanon, Fennegan, Bourguet and Hillstead, the group has more than 45 combined games of experience, as well as a Big 12 title and a Sugar Bowl.

Shortly after Hillstead made known his commitment, redshirt freshman Ryder Burton — a similarly touted recruit from the Class of 2023 out of Springville High — announced he was entering the portal. He joined walk-on Nick Billoups in looking for a new place to play.

If it feels like a quick escalation, perhaps it is. But in the era of the portal, schools and players often have less than a month to make a decision that high school recruits wander through for over a year.

"In high school, I think the bells and whistles are a lot more appealing," Hillstead said. "You get wined-and-dined on official visits. But when you play college football, it just comes down to ball. I knew when I entered the portal, that's what I was going to focus on.

"It's a short time, so I knew I had to have a few things to zero in on: the football, the coaches, the locker room environment of each of the schools that reached out. I asked those questions to each of the schools that recruited me, and I feel like I did my due diligence and felt like BYU was the best place for me to go."


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