PROVO — Most starting quarterbacks who have seen their status on the depth chart challenged after leading their teams to four wins as a freshman and four more as a sophomore, including victories over Tennessee and USC, get angry and bitter.
Zach Wilson got better.
That’s why BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick handed the bulked-up Wilson the starting job after preseason training camp concluded last week, ending a competition they have been referring to as “wide open” since the season ended last Christmas Eve with a disappointing loss to Hawaii.
“I would say the best thing about that is what he did in fall camp earned him the job,” Grimes said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” show Monday. “We really didn’t have to say (it came from) looking at the entirety of his career, with a larger sample size than other guys, because he earned it based off of what he did this fall camp.”
Grimes said the two other competitors for the starting job in the opener — BYU begins its season on Monday at Navy in a nationally televised contest on ESPN — also improved, but not to the extent that Wilson did. Sophomore Baylor Romney battled a lingering foot injury the first few months of the offseason but said he was fully recovered by the time fall camp rolled around, while Jaren Hall was slowed in camp by an issue with his hip.
No matter, say teammates and observers who followed the quarterback derby closely. Wilson, who added 10-15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame since last December, made the coaches’ choice fairly easy.
“It just leaves it with no doubt,” Wilson said. “I think it shows your teammates and your coaches you are willing to work for it. That’s how every spot in football should be. You have to earn the right to play, and earn the right to play well. Competition makes everyone better. That’s what we got out of this whole process, was the coaches want to play the best players that they can. Competition always brings out the best in everybody.”
As detailed by the Deseret News last June, Wilson spent hours and hours of his own time during the coronavirus pandemic improving his strength, conditioning and athleticism and bumped his weight to a chiseled 215 pounds. He also traveled back and forth to California on his own dime to get tutored by former BYU QB John Beck and others at the 3DQB training camp for QBs in Huntington Beach, California.
“Whether or not they said I was the starter from day 1 last year, or if it was a competition this fall, no matter what, the work I put in this offseason was was going to be exactly what I did this offseason (before coaches declared it an open competition),” Wilson said Monday. “That shows as far as your character and your personality to never get complacent and never take it for granted and never think, ‘oh, I am the (returning) starter so I can chill a little bit.’”
In fairness, Romney and Hall worked hard in the offseason as well, they and others said throughout the summer when interviewed by the Deseret News. And Grimes didn’t rule out the possibility of either sophomore seeing the field this fall, if Wilson falters or gets injured again. Both got their chances last season when Wilson missed three games with a fractured thumb and both delivered memorable wins.
“Every offseason is an opportunity to take it to the next level and set new goals and strive to be No. 1 on the team,” Wilson said. “But now it is (about) striving to be one of the best (teams) in the country. … The offseason preparation was going to be the same no matter what, because I wanted to give it everything I could to help this team win this year.”
What has made the biggest difference?
Wilson, Grimes and head coach Kalani Sitake all said Monday that Wilson is healthier than he’s ever been. Last year, he wasn’t completely recovered from January 2019 shoulder surgery and it showed in the lack of crispness on his passes. Grimes said Wilson was at about 80 %.
“Yeah, (being healthy) is huge,” Wilson said. “Everyone wants to play at 100%. Last year it was rushed; no excuses, obviously. I should have done better. It is nice coming into this year healthy. I am super excited to feel like I have the ability to (play better). I am strides ahead of where I was last year and even my freshman year when I was healthy. I am super excited for this first game.”
Sitake said that while Wilson spent the first six months of 2019 rehabbing and studying film because he couldn’t throw until a month or so before the season began, he has been able to “master his craft a little bit more, improve his game in all areas” the past eight months.
“Instead of trying to establish himself as a player, he was trying to compete, which he is going to have to do every time,” Sitake said. “But he solidified his spot. He was able to work on his timing. We are going to play the best guys, and he definitely earned it.”
Known as a film junkie, Wilson didn’t let that part of his game falter either, Grimes said, calling the Corner Canyon (Draper) High product “further ahead mentally” than he was when the 2019 season ended.
“He is one of those guys, who during the quarantine, the down time, did a lot to increase his knowledge of the game,” Grimes said. “So we are really pleased with what we have seen from him this fall.”
Word came Monday night that Wilson will be without his best weapon. Tight end Matt Bushman sustained what is believed to be a ruptured Achilles tendon and is likely lost for the season.
Before Bushman’s injury, Wilson described BYU’s running backs, receivers and tight ends as much-needed “playmakers” in an offense that hasn’t had enough of those in past years.
“I have to get the ball into their hands, and they are going to make plays,” he said.
Monday, coaches confirmed he’s the right man for the job.