SALT LAKE CITY — Going back four decades, from the time BYU football shed its longstanding image as a loser, every successful team enjoyed a great quarterback as the common dominator.
After a bit of a dry spell recently, it looks like the Cougars are back in the quarterback business. A sophomore who started the second half of last season, Zach Wilson, has all the tools to get the offense back in the end zone more consistently.
He’s so receptive to coaching. He’s constantly trying to be a better player; very critical of himself. But I do think he carries himself with a lot of confidence because he’s a good player and he knows what he’s doing out there.
–Aaron Roderick, BYU passing game coordinator
And get this: Wilson might be good enough to finally beat Utah next week for the first time since he was a youngster in elementary school. He darn near did it last season, leading BYU to a 20-point lead before Utes rallied in the second half to extend their winning streak to eight games in the intense rivalry. (Here’s a prediction: Over the next three years Wilson will be the first BYU quarterback to beat Utah since Max Hall in 2009).
BYU enters this season touting an improved all-around offense, highlighted by a veteran line and a much better stable of running backs. But the quarterback has got to be great for the team to be good.
Right from the start, against a Utah defense that is being hailed as among the best nationally, Wilson may likely need to play his best game of the season — not too much pressure on a quarterback still healing from offseason surgery to repair the labrum on his throwing shoulder.
“I expect him to be ready,” said BYU passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick. “He’s got to be. We’re playing against one of the best defenses in the country, so he’s got to be ready.”
Wilson burst on to the scene midway through last season, assigned with the task of igniting a stagnant offense. With a sense of confidence about him, the former Corner Canyon High star finished the season by completing all 18 passes in BYU’s win over Western Michigan in the Potato Bowl.
His ability, combined with the experience gained last season, has greatly increased the level of optimism going into this season — and don’t forget to mix in a healthy dose of confidence, which some would call cockiness.
Roderick, who is also Wilson’s position coach, believes the confidence stems from a great work ethic highlighted by countless hours of film study and preparation.
“I just watch him every day doing everything he can to become a better player,” Roderick said after a recent practice. “He’s so receptive to coaching. He’s constantly trying to be a better player; very critical of himself. But I do think he carries himself with a lot of confidence because he’s a good player and he knows what he’s doing out there.
“Peyton Manning said once that pressure is when you don’t know what the heck you’re doing out there. Zach carries himself with a lot of confidence because he knows what we’re doing. He’s got a good presence, and he understands what we’re trying to get done.”
Wilson enters his first full season as the starter at a great time. With coordinator Jeff Grimes, Roderick and several other coaches in their first season at BYU, last year was an often bumpy maiden voyage for the entire offense.
After two spring practices and a full offseason together, players and coaches should be in sync. As a result, the offense can become more intricate.
“We’re a little more advanced this year,” Roderick said. “It’s not so much about (Wilson) as it is the other players around him. Last year, the other 10 guys weren’t always ready for us to be more complicated than we were. Year two, everybody speaks the same language now.”
Not that the ride will be entirely smooth this year, though. The Utes, along with all the opponents, have an ample amount of game film on Wilson to devise a game plan to stop him and the offense.
“He’s not going to catch anybody off guard this year,” Roderick said. “They’ve got six, seven games of film on him now. He knows that these teams we’re playing are going to be gunning for him and they’re going to have a plan to try to stop him, so we’ve got to be ready.”
The big difference this year is an expected much-improved run game. By the time the Cougars ended the regular season against Utah, they were forced to convert Matt Hadley from defense to running back.
When Hadley went out with an injury, a game in which BYU had built a 20-point lead, the offense stymied. The addition of two graduate transfers and a healthy Lopini Katoa should give Wilson’s arm a rest.
“It’s hard nowadays to just throw it every play,” Roderick said. “I do believe we’re going to be a good passing team, but you’ve got to have a run game. We’re much better at running back than we were a year ago. That’s probably the most improved position on our team. Our offensive linemen, most of those guys are back and they’ve gotten better.”