If you are Zach Wilson, you have nothing to lose.
Wilson, the true freshman from Corner Canyon High, is locked in a battle with senior Tanner Mangum to start the season opener at Arizona. Of course, he has that job to lose, but, really, everytime he gets reps with the first team, he’s playing on house money.
Because historically at BYU it has been impossible for a true freshman to find himself in this position.
Consider his challenge:
Wilson is younger than most all teammates. He’s fighting to earn the respect of veterans, those who’ve been around and “paid their dues.” He isn’t in the Served a Mission Already club, which is actually a huge subculture that exists on BYU teams. Usually, physically, just-out-of-high-school players are in a different universe at the college level.
So far, this hasn’t made him blink. His eyes are wide open and he’s been accepted and respected.
“It’s been exciting. It’s been very welcoming out here,” said Wilson on Monday. “I can’t say anything negative about it. The players have taken me in and it’s like I’ve been here the whole time. I wouldn’t say my experience here has been rough, it’s been everything I could ask for.”
So far, he doesn’t have any baggage — i.e., games lost, interceptions, bad reviews, or a negative social media backlash —and he’s been a leader at workouts, both player-led and in fall drills.
In other words, he’s kind of carefree and easygoing when he steps on the field; he simply battles for the sake of playing football. He has a short memory because he has no history.
Wilson’s status as a contender to start returns BYU to a pre-Brandon Doman mode whereby players competed right out of high school and stayed in football without a two-year mission break. Such was the résumée of guys like Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, John Walsh, Steve Sarkisian and Kevin Feterik.
Wilson represents an uninterrupted run of skill development.
Wilson is in this position because of one simple thing: He's moving a new offense forward and he looks good doing it.
The fact that it is a new offense immediately put him equally on the starting line with five or six others last January. On Monday, both he and Mangum looked as crisp and sharp as at any practice this fall.
Breaking it down further, he’s made just as many plays as Mangum. His fundamentals (footwork, throwing motion, set up, delivery, foot speed) are impressive. And when receivers consistently catch his passes, he builds a constituency, a coterie of sorts; a real following as confidence in his rookie-ship grows.
Filled with confidence, Wilson gets this from home, growing up with a mother who, as a Zumba instructor, pushes clients to the limits of their endurance, pile driving belief, faith and drive in themselves.
“Her classes are a lot of hip-hop and she likes to hype up everybody and likes to tell everyone they can do better. You can tell just walking around she believes in herself and she can do anything and I think that’s a great way of looking at things.”
Would BYU dare do what many experts say is a dangerous gamble and start a true freshman on the road in the season opener at Arizona?
It would take a giant leap of faith by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and quarterback coach Aaron Roderick. It would break tradition and precedent. It would risk breaking his confidence. It’s kind of a jailbreak move. If he wins or loses will he still maintain favored status in the huddle and locker room?
Is it a move BYU wants to make heading into a September that features games against the Pac-12 media dark horse Wildcats, No. 6-ranked Washington and No. 4-ranked Wisconsin, all on the road?
It would be a gutsy decision.
Unless ... he is clearly the best.
Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame coach Glen Tuckett, who coached football at BYU, was asked a few weeks ago about the philosophical dilemma coaches face when it comes to choosing experience versus talent. “You always go with talent over experience,” he said.
Wilson’s approach since he enrolled at BYU in January, graduating early from Corner Canyon, has been simple: Be humble. Wilson seemingly always expresses gratitude that he’s in this situation. He’s not pretentious about being one of two left to battle things out.
“It’s humbling of course,” he said last week. “That’s kind of how football is, it’s a competitive kind of thing. You feel for everybody but in order to take it up a level, you need to take it up a step and Tanner and I are going to push each other to do the best we can.”
Wilson said he’s always taken this approach. “That’s just kind of my outlook in life, what I’ve always been taught. You have to be grateful for everything you have.”
Wilson rarely answers media questions talking about himself, avoiding the use of “I” or “me.” Instead, he says “we” or “the offense.”
After playing quarterback his whole life, he said he realized early that his success depended on others.
“Viewers from the outside can look at it from the outside and say, ‘Whoa, that quarterback is playing really well,’ or from the other side say, ‘Look at that quarterback and how bad he’s playing.’ But a lot of the success on a team comes from the offensive line and receivers getting open. I learned early that when people credit the quarterback, it’s my job to credit others.”
Kalani Sitake told reporters after Monday’s practice session that because there was not enough separation between Wilson and Mangum, he wasn’t prepared to name a starter yet.
In the words of Mangum last week, “We’re taking it one play at a time.”
But this is a week the entire team will take a step toward digesting game plans for Arizona, breaking out a depth chart and letting players know who will travel or stay home.
The Mangum-Wilson choice is still in the incubator — at least for public digestion.
That’s the way Cougar coaches want it.