By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Shane Marshall and Kurt Johnson
If he had followed the typical Wilstead family path, Kody Wilstead would be seeking fame and fortune as a baseball player, but the Pine View High quarterback didn’t take much to the diamond, so he sees his future in the sport of his passion.
“I started off playing baseball, just because that’s what my family did,” Wilstead said. “We’ve been known just for baseball players – my dad and my uncle played professional baseball and my brother’s playing up at BYU. It’s just always what’s been in my family. In third grade, I started playing basketball and football and I kept playing those. My sophomore year, I quit playing baseball.”
Outside of the success he has had on the gridiron, what made an amazing three-sport athlete walk away from his family’s favorite game?
“Baseball just wasn’t fun for me anymore,” Wilstead said. “It was just too much of a mental game. If you fail seven out of 10 times, you’re still doing good. To me, that’s still failing a lot. I don’t like to fail.”
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Wilstead also excels as a basketball player, but it took some time for him to learn to love that game. It seems for Kody, it’s all about being in the middle of the action.
“To be honest, I didn’t like basketball growing up because every little kid wants to be the one that scores, and they wouldn’t let me play point guard,” Wilstead said. “I didn’t like it. Even my freshman year I wasn’t a huge fan, but my sophomore year I started to get decent at it and then last year, I was actually really good and it was really fun. I felt like I was able to make more plays on the basketball court, but football’s what I always loved to do.”
Fortunately for Wilstead, his passion has led him to excel in the game that is his first choice, and after a mission to Argentina for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (he leaves Jan. 14), he will follow his brother Cole to BYU. He will just be seeking to make headlines in a different arena.
Success and Adversity
It was clear from the moment he walked on the field at Pine View that Wilstead was destined for greatness as a quarterback. He got some situational playing time with the varsity even as a freshman and was set to be the starting quarterback as a sophomore until a broken leg put him on the sidelines for much of that campaign.
“I went into the year thinking I was on top of the world, and I ended up being injured and watching a lot. I was humbled,” Wilstead said. “It definitely helped me going into my junior year, made me not want to take a play off.”
So 2013, his junior year, was the signal caller’s first full season as the leader of the Panther offense, and he put up some big numbers. Completing 62 percent of his passes as a junior, Wilstead passed for 4,390 yards by the time the state championship game was over, and had 36 touchdown passes.
All of that came in a year that finally ended with that state final loss to league rival Desert Hills. That game, and others along the way, made Wilstead into the more complete player he is today.
“His maturity (is the biggest change),” said Pine View head coach Ray Hosner. “His ability to read defenses. That’s been the biggest thing for him is to recognize what people are trying to do.
“Most of his turnovers last year came on first down and he’s learning that ‘I’ve got to manage this game and if something’s not there, I can’t squeeze it in there, especially on the first down play. I’ve still got second and third down to win this fight and I can’t always win it on every single down,’ so he’s been smart with the ball. He does a ton better at not putting us in bad situations.”
Wilstead doesn’t run the ball a lot, but he has learned that he can use his legs to assist in the passing game.
“I still have an aggressive mentality and I still try to do things as much as I can,” Wilstead said. “I feel a lot more comfortable running the ball now, so instead of trying to force something somewhere, if I don’t see it, I’ll scramble and either I’ll run it or I’ll wait for something to open up. I won’t just stand there and force it. It’s not taking away my aggressiveness, it’s just me realizing that I can extend plays and let people open up instead of trying to fit it into a hole.”
While you don’t see the Panther quarterback piling up rushing yardage like some of the other passers in the state, it’s not because he doesn’t like to tuck it and take off.
“I love to run the ball,” Wilstead said. “That’s something I’ve had to learn. My freshman year, not really varsity football where I wasn’t fast enough to do it, in freshman football, I was able to run all over people. I had a least two running touchdowns a game and I’ve always loved running. My sophomore year, I got hurt running the ball, and the coaches said ‘you can’t be doing that anymore.’ I’ve had to adjust how I think about running the ball, if I do run it, but when I get the chance, I love to run.”
Trusting the Team
Earlier this season, in the regular season rematch with Desert Hills, turnovers cost the Panthers a shot at revenge. There were lessons to be learned and one big reminder for the gifted Wilstead.
“I’ve made mistakes both (last two) games we’ve played them,” Wilstead said. “I’ve screwed up a lot. I tried to do more things myself and I need to have more trust in my teammates, and I realized that. After this last game, I texted all my seniors on the team and told them ‘I’m sorry I tried to do too much stuff and I should have trusted you guys. I take the blame for that one, but I promise you that I’ll have trust in you the next time we play. I’m not going to try to do it all by myself anymore.’
“We believe we can beat them and we believe we’re the best team. It just depends on execution. We had six turnovers compared to their one. We can’t turn the ball over that many times.”
Perhaps it is that trust in his teammates that has contributed to the statistical differences from 2013 to this season for Wilstead. A year ago, he had six games in which he passed for more than 400 yards, but there were also 17 interceptions. This year, he has passed for more than 400 just once, his career-high 501-yard game against Dixie, but thrown just four picks.
“The most impressive thing is that he doesn’t care about those (the stats),” Hosner said. “He’s always trying to get me to play him on defense, and he always tells me he doesn’t care where we’re at offensively, as long as we win games, that’s what matters. We’ll get the ball down into the red zone and he wants to hand the ball off and get guys touchdowns. He’s not selfish. He doesn’t care about any of his records. The only stat he cares about is whether we win or lose.”
Those numbers are also helped by the ongoing presence of Pano Tiatia, an outstanding running back.
“That’s kind of like pick your poison,” Hosner said. “Some teams want to load the box to make us throw the ball to beat them, and we have to throw the ball a little more. Snow Canyon loaded the box, and we said if they’re going to load the box we’ll just throw the ball and use our receivers. Some teams want to take away the guys on the outside, and so we run the ball.”
And in the passing game, Pine View has weapons all over the field, with Bladen Hosner, Colton Miller, Blake Ence, Preston Allen and tight end Steve Bangerter all bringing different sets of skills to the field.
“With how we run our offense, it helps everybody out,” Wilstead said. “We have five great receivers, including my tight end. Then, we have Pano who can do anything he wants. He can run people over, he can juke them out. Our offensive is so dynamic, it’s really hard for defenses to stop.”
Thriving Under Pressure
The 2013 3AA state semifinal was a shootout in which Pine View eventually outlasted Juan Diego 48-42 in overtime. There was a moment in the closing minutes of that contest when a victory seemed all but impossible.
“I learned that no matter what happens, there’s always a chance,” Wilstead said. “We had like two minutes left and we had the ball. We were down one, I think, and I fumbled. I was like, ‘Wow, I just lost us the game.’ Coach Hosner came over to me and said ‘I’m going to get you the ball back and you’re going to take it down and score.'”
After the Panther defense essentially opened the gates and let the Soaring Eagle take it to the end zone for an eight-point lead, Wilstead and his offense answered, got the two-point conversion and eventually the win.
In the end, his love of being in the middle of the action is what makes Wilstead thrive as a quarterback.
“I like all the pressure that gets put on me. I’m the kind of a kid who likes it when people rely on me,” Wilstead said. “I used to play receiver in the seventh grade, and I’m like I’m not getting anything out here, and it’s really boring actually. If I hadn’t moved to quarterback, I probably wouldn’t have played football anymore.”
Pine View fans are happy he found the position that kept him in the game.