Travis Wilson has heard all the talk. He’s heard that many consider Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton to be the best quarterback in the state. He’s heard coaches question his leadership abilities and he has heard how Utah’s backup quarterbacks edged closer to him in their ability to run the offense.
Does he see Utah’s opener against Utah State as a perfect chance to stake his claim that he is “the man,” in Utah? The quarterback the Utes need and everyone else wishes they had?
“Definitely,” he said. “This will be a big statement game, the first game of the season, and I definitely want to make sure we start out the right way.”
Wilson, who had to learn under fire last year when he became the starter after Jordan Wynn retired due to a recurring shoulder injury and Jon Hays failed to produce results, is eager to show he has grown into the quarterback role by doing more than just adding 20 pounds to his frame from a year ago.
He is bigger, but he is also stronger, more confident and more accurate than he ever was last year.
“I have a lot more confidence this year than I did last year,” he said. “Starting those games, I definitely know what to expect and what we need to do to be successful.”
Wilson doesn’t come across as the kind of player to get overly confident or egotistical, but Utah’s coaches made sure they kept the pressure on him. From spring practice when they hyped backup Adam Schulz to preseason camp when coach Kyle Whittingham said Wilson needed to be more of a leader, the coaches kept challenging him publicly.
Privately, they knew he was the quarterback they needed all along. Still, they liked the way he responded to the challenges.
“He has been terrific,” Utah co-offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson said. “He is throwing accurately and he knows what is going on. I couldn’t be happier with where he is at. He still has to get better, but it’s one thing when the lights go on and it’s another thing when he has started seven games. He has been there and done that.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark remaining is Wilson’s ability to lead the team. Can he be both a rallying and calming presence as the Utes take on their most challenging schedule ever?
The last such leader the Utes had at quarterback was Brian Johnson, now the co-offensive coordinator. He knows firsthand the challenge Wilson has ahead of him.
“It’s challenging for a younger guy to come in and try to lead a team with guys on it that are four, five or six years older than you,” he said. “The biggest thing is to be yourself and not try to be somebody you’re not. You have to make plays, too. No one is going to follow a guy who talks a lot and doesn’t make plays.”
Wilson’s teammates gave him a vote of confidence when he was named a captain.
“I believe in him,” defensive end Trevor Reilly said. “If I believe in him, there is no reason anyone else shouldn’t.”
Wilson may not come across publicly as an alpha-type. At 6-foot-6 with an easy smile and flowing locks, Wilson sometimes seems to fit the prototype of a California surfer more than quarterback. Yet his teammates say he is the leader they need and he continues to grow into the role — particularly after gaining experience last year.
“He has the old swag back like he had in high school,” receiver Kenneth Scott said. “He is telling everyone what to do and his confidence has risen since last year. That comes with experience.”
If anyone is worried about Wilson’s capabilities, they shouldn’t be, said tight end Jake Murphy.
“We back him up off the field and on the field, his play speaks for itself,” he said.
Wilson knows skeptics will remain until he starts proving himself on the field. That is why he views Thursday’s game against the Aggies as a golden opportunity. What better way to prove his leadership abilities than outplay a Heisman candidate and help the Utes avenge one of their most painful losses in recent history?
“I’m ready for the season to start,” he said. “Last year didn’t end how we wanted it to and we’re really motivated to get to a bowl game and make sure we send the seniors out the right way. They’ve worked hard and they deserve it.”
Travis Wilson file
O Sophomore quarterback
• 6-foot-6, 240 pounts
• San Clemente, Calif.
Of note • Went 3-4 as a starter last year when he became the first true freshman at Utah to start since the NCAA restored freshman eligibility in 1972. … Was 128 for 204 for 1,311 yards and seven touchdowns with six interceptions. … Threw for 220 in his first career start against UCLA. … Also surfs and plays beach volleyball.