SALT LAKE CITY — For the third time in the nine seasons since going independent, the BYU football program will have a sophomore quarterback with extensive and successful playing experience as a freshman.
Good news? Maybe this go around.
The two prior sophomores, Jake Heaps and Tanner Mangum, showed great promise as freshmen and, in the process, ratcheted up expectations to lofty heights. Unfortunately, neither player could match the hype in the subsequent seasons.
Heaps staggered through a miserable sophomore season, getting benched and often booed by BYU fans before transferring to Kansas after the final regular-season game. The top-ranked high school quarterback coming out of Seattle ended his college career languishing on the bench at Miami.
The start of Mangum’s college career was straight out of Hollywood, with two Hail Mary completions to beat Nebraska and Boise State, respectively. After backing up Taysom Hill as a sophomore, Mangum was ineffective and injured the following season, and then got benched midway through last year.
Whatever it is – a jinx, bad luck or lack of talent – Zach Wilson will try to succeed where the others failed.
Like his two freshman predecessors, Wilson is coming off a tantalizing first season. Taking over for Mangum midway through the season, Wilson completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,577 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. He culminated the season by completing all 18 pass attempts for 317 yards and four touchdowns in the bowl win over Western Michigan.
Move over Steve Young, Ty Detmer and maybe darned near everybody else, said one of his receivers.
“I do think he will end up being one of the greatest of all time at BYU, if not the greatest quarterback,” said outgoing senior Dylan Collie, who caught two touchdown passes from Wilson in the bowl game.
Aside from Wilson’s obvious physical skill, Collie pointed to intangibles as a difference maker. Wilson, he said, went overtime in putting in all the necessary work to achieve greatness.
“There’s not a whole lot standing in his way,” Collie said during an interview with The Zone Sports Network.
Remember, the same or close to it was said about the two other phenoms. Hopefully for BYU, this outcome will be different.
Riley Nelson can offer a powerful insight as an eyewitness to Heaps’ stunning fall from grace. Nelson, the new BYU radio analyst, rotated with Heaps for part of one season before eventually replacing him the following year.
He saw the pressure take down Heaps, who was hindered by outside influences directing him to create his own brand as the BYU quarterback. Heaps also had trouble unifying the locker room comprised of older juniors and seniors.
“Unfortunately, I think it maybe got out of hand a little bit to where the expectations became unattainable for anybody,” Nelson said during an interview on The Zone Sports Network. “I think Zach has done a good job managing that so far. You don’t hear much from him other than the occasional tweet, and lot of times it’s kind of lighthearted and playful and not really one of promotion.”
As for advice, Nelson would tell Wilson to “focus on football. Focus on that locker room. Really weave yourself into the fabric of leadership together with your upperclassmen teammates and other leaders on both sides of the ball and other position groups. That probably can be the best thing he can do to increase their chances for this 2019 football season.”
On the field, Wilson faces a much more difficult challenge compared to last season. Instead of the back half of the schedule, which traditionally has been weaker for BYU since going independent, Wilson will start with Utah, USC, Tennessee and Washington.
Each of those teams now has extensive tape of the quarterback to scheme against him. Nelson wants Wilson to stay within the framework of the game plan.
“He’s got to fight the temptation to overreact,” Nelson said. “In other words, don’t try to do something special, to be changing the route on everything . . . You start getting out of the box and trying to do too much, that can lead to negative things.”
Nelson finishes his counsel by advising Wilson to rely on the offensive coaches. Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing coordinator Aaron Roderick both have been coaching college football longer than Wilson’s been alive.
“One of the things I love about coach Grimes is his demeanor is really unflappable,” Nelson said. “He’s a guy that’s going to put together a very solid plan, one that is executable. If maybe in the first or second quarter you have a couple of bad series back to back, he’s not going throw that plan out the window. He’s going to have confidence in that plan, he’s going to help players develop confidence in that plan, and they’re going to be able to highly execute no matter what the game plan is schemed against.”