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BYU QB Zach Wilson’s rivalry debut was no fluke — Round 2 is almost here

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) pitches the ball as the rush movies in on him as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. Utah won 35-27.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) pitches the ball as the rush moves in on him as BYU and Utah play at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Nov. 25, 2018. Utah won 35-27.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The moment was not too big for Zach Wilson.

Now, another one is coming.

Many quarterbacks would be overly nervous, extremely anxious or overthink things in their first rivalry game after growing up around it all their lives.

But in last November’s BYU-Utah rivalry game, the youngest quarterback to ever start for the Cougars didn’t blink or flinch in Rice-Eccles Stadium, a place he’d dreamed of playing in all his life.

If anything, he soaked it in and loved it.

Even after throwing a pick-six to open the second half with BYU leading 27-7, Wilson was anxious to keep attacking after he lost running back Matt Hadley and play-calling turned conservative.

His stat line read 20 of 29 for 204 yards, two touchdowns, one interception for a 69% completion rate and 143.92 pass efficiency against No. 17 Utah, the best defense he faced as a starter last season.

No, Wilson’s success was not a fluke.

If you believe the endorsement of a guy whose defense goes up against Wilson every day, Wilson’s sophomore season could be better because Wilson is simply better.

“He is who he is,” said BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki.

“That (Utah) is a good defense and I’m sure they’re going to be ready for him this time around.”

Wilson will face what some have described as the best defensive line in the country and a secondary that features several potential first- or second-round draft picks.

This time around, both BYU and Utah will have had a complete offseason to dissect one another, nail down tendencies and create plans to counter what the other is expected to do.

“He’s better now than he was last year. That I can say with certainty,” said Tuiaki.

Playing his entire freshman season (seven games as a starter), Wilson battled a shoulder injury he suffered in high school. It became more difficult toward the end of the season when the game with Utah and the bowl game took place.

Receiver Aleva Hifo said, “We faced him across the line when he took over the reins and he got better every single game and in practices leading up to the bowl game. He is a phenomenal player and a really good quarterback.”

“Zach came out this summer and threw with velocity and accuracy. I think that surprised all of us, and probably him too, after his surgery,” Hifo said.

Last Tuesday Wilson told reporters he was 100% healed. “Ready to go.”

This month Wilson found himself ranked the No. 30 college quarterback last week by Cam Mellor, a writer and analyst for Pro Football Focus. He ranked Utah State’s Jordan Love 20th and Utah’s Tyler Huntley 27th in his evaluation of 130 players.

In what ways is Wilson better now, other than experience?

Hifo explains, “His mental part of the game is really good. He knows where to go with the ball before the ball is even snapped. His pre-snap reads are pretty accurate and he’s able to identify defenses and what they’ll roll into. It’s little details that help give up defenses and he’s studied it. He’s really good at giving us balls that we can run under.”

His improvement is evident, claim his teammates and coaches.

They say…

He’s had time to build chemistry with teammates, especially receivers, backs and tight ends.

He’s earned trust from offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, which has resulted in more freedom and flexibility in using his instincts.

He’s more aware of his own vulnerabilities and the importance of protecting himself if he runs out of the pocket.

He’s working with a more experienced, bigger and stronger offensive line with promising added depth.

He’ll have a better run game to work with many more healthy bodies.

He gets rid of the ball quicker and makes decisions faster.

He has earned the respect in the huddle and sidelines on both sides of the ball and he’s used this enhanced leadership to grow confidence team-wide.

In short, as Tuiaki said, he’s simply a better college quarterback than last December.

The big challenge is that his September competition will be light-years tougher than the schedule he played a year ago. Utah is ranked 14th instead of 17th, if one puts stock in rankings, and he’ll not only face USC, Washington and Tennessee, but also Boise State, Utah State, Toledo and South Florida. Far different from Hawaii, Northern Illinois, UMass and Western Michigan.

Improved?

He’d better be.