Playing quarterback at BYU is a huge honor. At one point, BYU rightfully claimed the title as “QB U.” With a school that boasts three Davey O’Brien Award winners and a Heisman Trophy from Ty Detmer’s 1990 campaign, along with a Pro Football Hall of Famer in Steve Young, few schools have a better resume.
Zach Wilson is part of a long line of BYU quarterbacks and being the signal caller for the Cougars comes with immense pressure and expectations, fair or unfair. Wilson is one game into his third season and looks to put injuries and inconsistent play behind him.
He has played in nine games in each of the first two seasons at BYU, but is yet to play a full slate of games due to injuries. He set a career high with 2,382 passing yards last year but had a lower passer rating (130.8) than his freshman season (157.2).
The nice thing about coming from a long pedigree of good quarterbacks is that there is a lot to learn. Let’s look back at the last 10 years or so at some of the most recent quarterbacks in their third season in the program and perhaps something Wilson can learn from it.
Riley Nelson, 2011
After winning a quarterback battle with Jake Heaps, Nelson took off in his junior season at the helm. He helped guide BYU through their first season of independence and eventually a 10-3 season, the last double-digit win season BYU enjoyed. He led the team to a 6-1 record when he took over as the starter, including a miraculous comeback win against Utah State and a bowl win against Tulsa.
Nelson showed toughness, playing through rib and lung injuries. He just found ways to win and lead his team. He was never a premier passer or elite athlete but he just made plays when BYU needed them.
What can Wilson learn? How to be reliable and play well enough to win even when your body isn’t 100 percent. Wilson would do well to learn from Nelson’s toughness and winning mentality. Nelson seemed to come alive under pressure. The jury is still out on Wilson in similar situations.
Taysom Hill, 2014
Hill is largely considered the most athletic quarterback BYU has had since Steve Young. If you don’t believe me, turn on the New Orleans Saints this football season, where Hill is head coach Sean Payton’s favorite toy to play with on Sundays. He has scored nine touchdowns with almost 1,000 all-purpose yards in three seasons. At BYU, his bugaboo was health. He played with such reckless abandon, putting his body on the line game after game that unfortunately, he ended three of his five seasons at BYU with injuries.
He finished as the highest rushing quarterback in program history and fourth-best in total offense. 2012 and 2013 offered glimpses into his other-worldly talent. In 2014, he came out of the gates with his hair on fire after almost 3,000 passing yards and over 1,300 rushing yards the year before. BYU started the season 4-0 and pole-vaulted to No. 18 in the Top 25 polls thanks to Hill’s efforts, which landed him on every reputable Heisman watch list in the country. However, it all came to a screeching halt against Utah State, when he fractured his leg. BYU went from 4-0 to finishing the season 8-5, much due to Hill’s unavailability.
Hill also showed considerable improvement in passing, improving his completion percentage each of his first three seasons.
What can Wilson learn? When to turn it off, when to live to play another down. He is no good to the team in the training room. Hill was the heart and soul of several seasons of BYU teams and when he went down, the wind just sucked out the teams’ sails. Wilson is arguably as talented as Hill but must learn to pick his spots and avoid further injury. He is a better passer than Hill but is far from perfect. Early returns in 2020 are positive in that department.
Tanner Mangum, 2017
No quarterback in BYU history burst onto the scene quite like Mangum in 2015, defeating Nebraska with a Hail Mary and doing himself one better against Boise State the next week. Then he sat for a year while Hill played his senior season in 2016, not getting the full-time gig again until 2017. His junior year was mostly a forgettable one, throwing for over 200 yards just twice while tossing more interceptions than touchdowns, before getting hurt and eventually missing five games and the Cougars spiraled to a 4-9 season.
Mangum did not have the same pizazz and zip on the ball in his junior campaign. Whether it was by nagging injuries or a change in philosophy, Mangum wasn’t his best self that season. Ty Detmer was the offensive coordinator for the 2016 and 2017 season but was relieved of his duties after that season.
What can Wilson learn from Mangum? Again, the theme here is staying healthy. Some of Mangum’s poor play can be attributed to nagging injuries. There is a delicate balance between playing through bumps and bruises and letting your injuries put the team’s success in jeopardy. It seems Wilson worked extremely hard to improve his passing this past offseason and it doesn’t look like he will have the same throwing issues Mangum had in his own junior season.
BYU has struggled mightily keeping their number one quarterback healthy year after year. They have not had the same starting quarterback from start to finish since 2013, seven years ago. Some of that is outside of Wilson’s control but he can do his part to make sure he is available for his team week in and week out.
Lastly, with this being year three in the same offense with the same coaches, there is zero excuse for Wilson not to be on the same page with offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick. Naturally, we can expect this season to be Wilson’s best yet. Going 13-for-18 with two touchdowns, one interception and a 206.0 passer rating versus Navy, he is off to a good start.