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Cougar Insiders: What we learned from Zach Wilson's debut as BYU starter (podcast)

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) celebrates the win with teammates and fans as BYU defeats Hawaii at LaVell Edwards Stadium 49-23 in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson celebrates the Cougars' win over Hawaii with teammates and fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.

Dick Harmon: Coming up on this edition of Cougar Insiders podcast we're going to break down the Zach Wilson era as it began against the University of Hawaii. 49 points. What did that mean? Let's put it in perspective. We'll also be talking about Tanner Mangum — how has he handled this? And we'll break down some recruiting and some basketball. That and much more on this edition of Cougar Insiders podcast.

Welcome to the Cougar Insiders podcast. I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News, along with beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're coming to you from Thanksgiving Point and we're talking BYU sports. Gentlemen, we had an interesting game, this Hawaii game, BYU game, the Zach Wilson thing. Has this turned around BYU's program or at least given it a spark or jump-started it in some way? Because at least I think from talking to fans, it's a completely different feeling than they've had for the past couple of weeks. Jeff Call, is this going to be a turning point for this team?

Jeff Call: Well I think that still remains to be seen but it's a good sign, a good way to start out. For Zach Wilson in his first start, youngest quarterback to ever start at BYU, to play the way he did. And after two straight lopsided losses — the way they played against Washington and Utah State — they needed something like this, to win convincingly and show a real ability to score points, which we haven't seen out of BYU in quite a while.

DH: We've got to look back to UMass, two or three years ago, when they scored this many points. They simply have not scored that many points against teams that they really should — you go back to Portland State, you go back to McNeese State — they can't do it.

JC: I think to score the way they did, and they scored in a lot of different ways, we saw a lot of different guys get in the end zone, we saw a quarterback draw from Zach Wilson, we saw a beautiful pass he made to Gunner Romney there at the end, and to be able to run the way they did. And you have to understand this Hawaii defense is not very good. But, moving forward, it's a good sign for BYU to get some confidence back. If you look back to the Utah State game, they were lifeless, they didn't really have an identity, and now they're starting to turn that way. And with a bye week coming up it's probably good for them to get really focused in for these last five games of the season.

DH: You know, you look at the film, Brandon Gurney, and Hawaii's lines were really struggling. They were getting blown off the line, they were getting manhandled by BYU's offensive linemen. But on the other had, BYU's offensive and defensive line looked like they were more energized, more engaged and had more passion, more energy, more fight in them and wanted to take it to them. A spark? Yeah, there was a spark out there we haven't seen in this team for a while.

Brandon Gurney: To me, and we talked about this, the most disappointing thing about Utah State was the line play. And I mean you can point to a lot of factors, but the line play was the one thing that really surprised me. And the one thing people like to say, oh it's Hawaii, you're supposed to do that. Well, they scored 49 points. They did exactly what they were supposed to do against a team like Hawaii. When has that happened before? It doesn't happen. And when you look at Kalani's team, consistency is the thing that just doesn't happen. That's the biggest difference between the Bronco Mendenhall years and the Kalani (Sitake) years is you largely knew what you were going to get from Bronco. You knew what type of effort, how the game was going to play out. You just don't know that with Kalani. And I believe that Hawaii game was kind of — they did what they probably should have done. And how many times can you say that with the BYU football game over the last three years? And I think maybe it was significant. Everyone is talking about Zach Wilson. Yeah, he was good, but I think the defensive performance was really, really solid. I think that's where they made the biggest turnaround. You saw a lot of pretty significant changes with the alignment, who was playing, and I think it paid dividends. And I think for the defense, that's going to be a very positive step forward, more so than the offense.

DH: You know, I credit (Ilaisa) Tuiaki but there's a hidden ghost behind this thing that I think you've got to get credit. That's Ed Lamb. Ed Lamb had his fingerprints all over this in a lot of different ways, from personnel changes to the blitzes that were created, to the deployment of a lot of different personnel. We saw some freshmen, D'Angelo Mandell, and some others that came in and they played pretty darn good against some very, very good receivers. In fact, you know, the way that they deployed that three-man rush and then dropped eight and then covered the lanes, it was brilliant.

BG: Yeah, yeah, it was very creative. What they're doing what Corbin Kaufusi — he was an absolute playmaker, and they also shifted the safeties a lot. You saw three cornerbacks start out with Michael Shelton. Wilcox, who I think has been kind of an underrated story, I think (Chris) Wilcox has made really good games. You saw him defend a pass in the end zone. Just defending a pass is something you never saw from Chris Wilcox. He's doing a really good job. They didn't play Troy Warner as much. I don't know if Troy is still struggling coming back from surgery coupled with learning a new position, but he didn't play a lot. They largely stuck with Austin Lee and then Dayan Ghanwoloku I believe is a real difference-maker for this defense. And I think just with that I think Isaiah Kaufusi — he had a really big debut starting at outside backer. So you're seeing some changes on defense and they certainly paid off for one game.

DH: You remember that the spring practice couple of years ago we saw Isaiah, we're talking about. Fresh off a mission. I think he had two interceptions in that scrimmage. So he's got the talent. He knows what he can do. And he's got the bloodlines. Jeff Call, I've always maintained and you've heard me say this many times before in watching BYU football for the last four decades. BYU is its best when it has a passer that can do a finesse game on opponents. BYU's not always going to match up with other teams. They're not going to have the speed. They're not going to have some of the athleticism that you see. But the one difference that has made a difference since the days of Gifford Nielsen, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Robbie Bosco, you go back to Virgil Carter, is that they have a quarterback that takes charge, that makes plays. That is a great equalizer, that puts them in a position to challenge more talented teams. Are we on the verge of seeing that now with Zach Wilson?

JC: Well, after his performance last Saturday, I would say it looks like it's trending in that direction. I mean, he looked like a BYU quarterback, the way he was, you know, not just the plays that he made, but the way that he seemed to command the huddle and take control. I mean, I don't think you would have guessed that he was only 19 years old and it was his first start. I mean, if you didn't know the background and saw him playing you would never guess that, I don't think. So it's a great development for BYU moving forward. I think it'll be interesting this coming game with Northern Illinois, after the bye week, because Northern Illinois a very good defensive team It's going to be a stiffer test for BYU. And the other thing, now Northern Illinois has some game film. They know who this guy is, and they can game-plan for him. I mean, I go back to last year. I know the circumstances are very, very different. But last year, you saw Joe Critchlow get his first start late in the season at UNLV and they'd never seen Joe Critchlow and he came out and with Squally Canada running for over 200 yards and what Joe Critchlow was able to do, BYU got that win. And then what happened the next week, they come home and they play a UMass team that's not very good, but they game-planned for Joe Critchlow and his weaknesses and they lost that game. And I'm not saying that's going to happen, but I'm what I am saying is this is a different challenge coming up this week. It will be interesting to see how BYU responds to this.

DH: Before we leave the Zach Wilson saga we got to talk about this a little bit. Because Zach Wilson is going to be much, much better if they get Squally Canada healthy. If they continue to run Hadley the way they did, and Lopini Katoa is really doing well, but the offensive line, the response to that, the feeling that they can get things done and, Brandon Gurney, these running backs they're going to run hard and catch passes out of the backfield and stretch defenses with the run, is going to be huge for Zach Wilson down the line.

BG: Absolutely. And he's going to need to continue to adjust because you saw a Zach Wilson who wasn't as effective in the second half, as much as he was the first half. And I think defenses are going to start to settle in, understand his tendencies and that. You saw him not recognizing cover two times in a row, which you're going to see that from the freshman. And all that said, and everyone's just celebrating and all that, he didn't even pass for 200 yards. But he was efficient and I think the energy and I think it was absolutely the right decision to put him in. And I think probably the biggest indictment against Tanner Mangum — I don't know if we're going to talk about this later or if I can talk about this now — but everyone points to the Utah State and Washington. I think the bigger indictment was McNeese State because I think they had a plan going into the season, the progression of the offense. They were going to keep it vanilla, then OK we're gonna open it up because teams are going to adjust to us, we got to show we can pass. They couldn't pass against McNeese State. They weren't able to do it. You just saw (Jeff) Grimes just go, oh, we can't do it, let's just run on these guys, right? And I think that was just a moment in the offense where it wasn't able to take the progression that they thought and what you had resulting from that, among many other factors, were totally getting railroaded by Washington and Utah State just because you weren't able to take that next step offensively. I don't want to put it all on Tanner Mangum but they just weren't able to do it. And you think maybe they made some strides against Hawaii, opening things up. So I think that was largely kind of the big reason why Tanner lost his job.

DH: You make some good points there. Tanner Mangum — here's a young man that we've all visited with, we've all interviewed, we've spent time with him. We've seen him be gracious and take the time to talk to us and give us meaningful quotes about what's going on, explaining things in his life, share his personal, you know, demons that he's had with mental health issues. We've seen him come back from injuries time and time again. We've been there when he threw the Hail Mary in the game against Nebraska and then again against Boise State. He's had good moments, but Jeff Call, how has he handled this?

JC: Well, I think, you know, we haven't talked to him since the demotion obviously, but from all indications. I mean, if you've looked at him on the sideline, I mean, he was doing all the right things, and I think he was sincere. I mean, I think he really is a team guy. I think he really wants BYU to succeed. And however that may be, and after the game, Zach Wilson talked about how supportive Tanner has been to him and those two are roommates and they spend a lot of time together these last several months and it's got to be hard for Tanner, obviously, and Kalani Sitake acknowledged that after the game, that he took the news hard and he expected him to, you know he's not gonna be happy with it. Who wants to be demoted in your senior year? But you know, all things considered, I think Tanner is going to be a great help to Zach moving forward and try to help this team win as many games they can.

DH: BYU does not play this week they've got a week off. They're preparing now for Northern Illinois. A long-needed rest and respite from workouts and get some guys healed and stuff like that. While we're not covering so much everything daily, there is an opportunity to go ahead and guess some games. The GridPicks — there's a great chance for you to win prizes by posting your college football predictions online. It's called GridPicks and you can sign up at I personally pick the 14 games each week and there are gift cards to be won. Test your knowledge and luck at, look for GridPicks.

The untold story, Jeff Call. What have you got for us?

JC: Well I just think that if you look at the season in totality, and obviously this program needs to get back to a bowl game. That's a benchmark that BYU needs to hit. And going into the season it looked like it was kind of in limbo whether they would reach that six-win plateau and surprise everybody by winning three games in September. Now they're going to the Hawaii game 3-3 coming off two bad losses. If you look at the rest of season, and you've got Boise State and Utah on the schedule, BYU's never won at Boise State and we all know how long it's been since BYU's even beat Utah anywhere let alone up at Rice-Eccles. You kind of saw a small window for BYU to get those three wins and they've got one now and then they've got basically Northern Illinois, New Mexico State and UMass to get you know, they need two to get those wins. So it's looking a lot better now and interestingly Brett McMurphy, who of course is a great college football writer, I saw that he predicted BYU and Virginia in the Independence Bowl. What a great matchup that could be, if it plays out that way. I mean, how many storylines and how many — it would be incredible.

DH: I don't know that Bronco Mendenhall would want that. I wouldn't think that Kalani Sitake would want that. And I think that they'll probably let that be known to ESPN, whoever owns that bowl. So yeah, that'll be interesting.

JC: I think Bronco, if I remember right, he said that, you know, BYU was supposed to play Virginia, I think next year. I can't remember if it's in Charlottesville or in Provo. But he moved that back a couple years because he doesn't want that matchup. But do you think ESPN would want that matchup? I think they would.

DH: And what about the Las Vegas Bowl with Utah and Utah State. Wouldn't that be a matchup made in heaven. You know social media kind of went a little bit crazy this last weekend when Kalani Sitake, after the game, several times mentioned about the interception that Zach Wilson threw. He kind of mentioned his ego kind of got to him. he shouldn't have thrown that ball, he needs to learn and stuff like that. A lot of people said hey, what are you doing, the guy had a great game. What are you criticizing, what are you doing that for, we can't stand it, you can't do that, you can't do it. But, Brandon Gurney, you and I both know Coach Sitake and there's no one that is more caring and loving about his players than he is. We've seen it over and over again. You've seen on the recruiting trail when you've gone to the Poly camp. He's a unique person. I don't think he meant it the way that people took it.

BG: No, and I think what happens with a lot of fans is they champion their second-string quarterback, which happens a lot, and when he actually plays they're willing to give them every benefit of the doubt and largely justifiably so. He was really good. Wilson did a really good job. I won't say great job but, yeah, Kalani just wants the guy to stay grounded. I mean that was a bad read, but what was bad about it was he made essentially the same bad read two plays in a row. But we're nitpicking here because he was largely fantastic and Kalani probably is a bit too, but that's part of being a coach. You got to keep the guys grounded, you got to think son, you got to make that progression. This is Hawaii, you can't do this against Northern Illinois, they'll jump all over you.

DH: Well there's also the thing, you know, the worst thing you can do is praise a lot of people in a win. A lot of coaches believe you can't do that, you've got to keep the edge going, Jeff Call, and you've got to put them on notice. You can't go around doing fluff and you know blowing air up their skirts and patting them on the back and, oh yeah, we're great. You've got to keep the edge going because if you don't, and this team has shown that it does not handle success well, and it doesn't win well at home.

JC: Yeah I don't think we know, you know, maybe some of the behind the scenes things. Maybe this was something that was stressed to Zach and was really emphasized and then he ended up doing it. And in back-to-back plays, like we said, I mean yeah, I just think that this team needs to have an edge to it. There's some big games left on the schedule. I mean, there's some games, especially Boise State and Utah, they're really big games that BYU has a chance to win. I think, you look at Boise State and they've vulnerable. I don't think we thought that at the start of the year, but now it looks like this is a game BYU can compete and maybe win. And then Utah. You never know with that game. I mean, it's just a toss-up. You never know. You go to the end of season, you see how it goes.

DH: I would pick Utah, they're playing really well right now ...

BG: I know what you're saying.

JC: I mean, overall the games are close and it's there to win if you make the play.

DH: Well, here's the thing though, Utah has not played well in November. They've done that season in season out and failing to win the South and the Pac-12. This is an unusual situation not to play Utah at the beginning of the year, but get back to a traditional time and maybe a time that Utah might be a little bit preoccupied with that Southern Division and they just don't play well in November. They haven't done that, Brandon Gurney.

BG: They're going to get up for BYU though. I mean, come on. It's still there. Everyone wants to think, oh they moved on to bigger things and I don't believe that for a second. I absolutely love that it's the final game of the year. I've said this throughout the year — it's such a carrot at the end of a long season and I've always spoken out about the narrative of BYU's season. How it's largely awful in independence, it just is. I mean, let's just say what it is. I mean, oh, yeah, New Mexico State, UMass, oh we've got Utah? Wow. Yes. Now let's build up to that game. It's fantastic and it's really a shame that it's not happening every year but at least we get it this year.

DH: One thing that's happening in bye week is there'll be a lot of recruiting being done. Brandon Gurney, why don't you give us an update on recruiting, kind of what's been happening, some of the athletes, some of the games, some of the things you've seen and heard about around the recruiting circuit.

BG: Well you're going to start to see a lot of commits coming in and you're seeing a lot of wide receivers offered, which is a really good thing because if you look at the program right now what position needs an influx of talent? I'd say it's probably the receiver position, maybe more so than any other. And they've got a commitment. They got a kid named Keanu Hill, from Euless Trinity, a school that does not pass the football. You want to think about Euless Trinity think about Bingham football. It's probably very comparable. Not a big recruit, two stars, offered by Wyoming. But he did have other offers which I think is kind of notable.

DH: But he has the intangibles.

BG: Yeah, well you hope. You never really know. He has the measurables, there's no question about that. He's 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. I think with this new offense that Grimes is doing you're going to look for those big type of receivers, those guys that can really block and posession-type guys, I think this guy might fill the bill. So so yeah, I'm all for an influx of talent at wide receiver position. We'll see if this kid can do it.

DH: Chase Roberts, how's he been doing?

BG: I saw him play live, he has a hurt arm. So it's not really fair to judge what he's doing right now because he probably shouldn't be playing. Maybe I shouldn't let that out. He had two fantastic touchdowns, one went for a touchdown, the other was called back for some phantom pass interference that everyone thought was a bad call. But you could see the injury really affect him for the rest of the game, he wasn't able to haul in passes and be the effective receiver that he is. But man when he is performing well, he is fantastic. He is worth every bit of hype and BYU will be lucky to hang on to that kid. They really will. And I think he's going to stick with BYU because he came out off the field after he dropped to pass, took off his helmet, and said shoot. And I though yeah, that kid might stick.

DH: Might be a BYU guy. Jeff Call, talking of shoot, BYU basketball is going to unveil itself this Friday. Dave Rose has got a good assembly of talent. This is an opportunity for him, maybe St. Mary's is down a little bit, this BYU team's got to step up and do something.

JC: Yeah, I agree. And I think this team is different from ones we've seen in the past in the fact that they've got more experience. A lot of upperclassmen, I think they have eight upperclassmen this year, which has been unusual. We've seen so many years BYU is dominated by freshmen, sophomores and they tend to make mistakes with the lack of experience and things like that. And the other interesting thing about this team is now that Heath Shroyer has moved on, we're going to see BYU go back to more of an up-tempo style. And it's going to be interesting because this is a style that I think suits a lot of guys in this program. They were recruited for this style, namely TJ Haws, I know I talked to him the other day and he's very excited about being able to push the ball a little bit more, more free-wheeling and things like that. TJ, last year, kind of looked like he was very uncomfortable all year with what was going on. So those two things are very bright spots for BYU. The experience and going back to that style of play. And then again, it's going to come down to another year where can they compete with Gonzaga? Can they take over St. Mary's and maybe that second spot and maybe compete with Gonzaga for that top spot?

DH: Final word, gentlemen, either basketball or football or whatever feelings you have about anything. Brandon Gurney, let's start off with you. What's the final word you have for this podcast today?

BG: I think the Northern Illinois games can be very enlightening. As far as what this team is, I think we see that a lot. But I think coming off a bye with the new structures in place, you parlayed against — Northern Illinois, they're a good team. That is a solid football team, they will test BYU. I think it's maybe even a 50/50 game, I think Northern Illinois is that good. I'm really anxious to see how BYU matches up, can they keep this rolling or are they going to divert back? Consistency, consistency. Can that consistency be there? Can the offensive line dominate again? We'll see. I'm very interested.

JC: Well, along those lines, I think that, you know, the one thing that Kalani talked about after the game was he wanted to have — he wants this program to have a physical identity. And I feel like in especially the Washington, Utah State games, we didn't see that. And I think when they're physical and they want to impose their will, and they've got confidence and they've got, you know, they're playing with excitement, enthusiasm, I think that all kind of feeds off each other and that's going to be the key, I think, for this final stretch the year. If they can do that and put things together, and again, they've got some big games coming up. And this is their chance to kind of put all the nightmare of last year behind them and move forward and I think you can point to a lot of bright spots in this program with all the young players, I mean, you look at them and think there might be some good times ahead, but this final stretch of season will be key to not only finish this out right, but for the future.

DH: My final word is about a gentleman and we both know, Jeff, and not so much you, Brandon. Paul James, Hall of Fame broadcaster, was laid to rest today as we speak. His funeral is going on. I'm missing that. I feel bad about that. But I do want to pay tribute to him. What a great talent he was. What a meaningful person he was to a lot of BYU fans over decades. He was a unique personality. I wrote a column about him today trying to give a salute and little bit of an honor to him. I honor him this day by saying live well beyond this veil, we'll see you again my good brother.

Thanks for joining us on this episode of the Cougar Insiders podcast. We'd love to hear from you through email at We're coming from Thanksgiving Point. Thanks for being with us.

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