Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU wide receiver Austin Whetzel

Austin Whetzel isn’t on any BYU posters or promotional videos. He also isn’t the subject of weeklong bowl interviews, injury updates, or discussions about matchups or strategy heading into the postseason.

But Whetzel is a receiver who is excited, grateful, motivated and anxious to go to a bowl game and wear a BYU uniform. He doesn’t care what it is called or how it ranks on somebody’s to-do list. It doesn't matter whether the bowl is in Pasadena or Payson.

Whetzel is simply a bundle of pre-holiday gratitude.

The former Lehi High School receiver and defensive back and one-time student at Weber State is a walk-on at BYU. Whetzel wore No. 18 and pretended to be Utah star slot receiver Britain Covey on BYU’s scout team the week before BYU’s final regular season game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He runs a 4.55 time in the 40 and has a vertical jump of 40 inches.

In Whetzel’s best universe, he’d be starting with a big role in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Dec. 21 in Albertsons Stadium. But, alas, he will not be starting. And yet ...

“It is an honor to be with this team and it is a great opportunity to play another game, to go to a bowl game,” Whetzel said this week.

“There are a lot of players on this team who have not played in a bowl game and it means a lot to them. It certainly does to me. I don’t take it for granted and I want to do everything I can to help the team prepare for a win against Western Michigan.”

Whetzel is grateful because he fully feels the weight of what he pays mentally, emotionally and physically to suit up each day. He spends five hours a day on football, then he has classes and studies. It’s cost him about $5,000 per semester to go to school and practice alongside athletes with full-ride scholarships.

At the end of the day, he’s exhausted. His wife Rilea works to help make ends meet. His investment to attend BYU is profound. He takes nothing for granted.

Whetzel had a goal of being accepted to BYU’s Business Management School and recently was one of just 40 yearly applicants admitted to the Business Strategies program as part of that discipline. “I think football helped me get in the program,” he said.

Whetzel had a 4.0 GPA and a 24 on the ACT coming out of Lehi and had offers to be a preferred walk-on at BYU and Weber State. He went on a mission to Detroit and enrolled at Weber State after an invitation from head coach Jay Hill, who is from Lehi. He later attended Utah Valley University before accepting an invitation to be a preferred walk-on at BYU as a defensive back. Through all of this, he maintained a 4.0 GPA.

Somewhere in all the fuss about recruiting, Power 5 structure, big-time money, TV contracts, the haves and have-nots and arguments about expanding the college football playoffs from four to eight teams, the story of Whetzel hits to the heart of what college sports are all about. Nobody flew to one of his high school games in a helicopter to recruit him.

Whetzel is why college sports are so intriguing to follow, even though his name will not be found in a box score. His work playing the part of Covey proved to be an important role.

“It is a tremendous amount of work to give four or five hours a day to football, go to classes and find time to do homework. At the end of the day, it is hard to find the motivation to study when you’ve given so much of what you have.”

Last spring, Whetzel suffered a high ankle sprain during spring practice, a critical time to prove himself with a new offensive coaching staff and installation of new formations and plays. It set him back three months in recovery.

But during the summer he got a call from receivers coach Fesi Sitake, who invited him to return and be a receiver as a preferred walk-on. He knew Sitake when he was at Weber State.

These opportunities are not accepted lightly.

Whetzel has had a front-row seat all year, witnessing what head coach Kalani Sitake has tried to get done. He understands just how close losses to California, Northern Illinois, Utah, and Boise State were and what a difference a little better execution could have made.

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“Kalani has worked hard in establishing a culture to lead us to success and he’s not done yet. As players, we want to play for him and we see the vision of what he wants the program to do and our part in making that come to be. He definitely is the guy to be leading this football program right now because we believe in him.”

That, in a nutshell, is what’s pushing BYU towards preparation for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

In the mind of Whetzel, it isn’t the location; it is the journey.

And he’s on the wagon train.