They are young. They are inexperienced. They are talented in a yet-to-be-determined way. They are green, tenderfoot quarterbacks with tender arms, too. They are raw and uninitiated, buoyed by the prospect of whatever comes next. They are freshmen. And they are the most important players on the field.
Jason Shelley and Zach Wilson will lead Utah and BYU into action on Saturday night, neither having ever played in the rivalry game, neither knowing completely what to expect. This is an absolute first for each of them.
And both Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake are OK with it.
Of Wilson, Sitake said:
“He’s ready to play football. I have a lot of confidence in him. Is he perfect? Has he played perfect? No. But that’s part of football. You want him to be perfect. He’s made some mistakes. But I can tell you, he’s learned from them. He has the mindset to rally back from anything he’s seen. … I’ve been really happy with him and his performance. More than anything, it’s a mindset. I just love the way he competes. He’s doing a great job leading this team, especially as a true freshman.”
Whittingham on Shelley:
“He’s a confident kid, mature beyond his years.”
Anybody who wants proof of that declaration should study Shelley’s 47-yard touchdown throw to Jaylen Dixon in the Colorado game. In what was at that point in the third quarter a tight contest, the quarterback dropped back a few steps and without hesitation fired a flawless spiral as Dixon was still clearing traffic. That play did not look like it was made real by an unseasoned passer, nor did an earlier 61-yard heave to Dixon that led to a second-quarter score.
“We [saw] on film that they give up a few deep balls,” Shelley said, sounding impressively seasoned. ”We came out in the second half trying to exploit that.”
In two starts since Tyler Huntley was injured against Arizona State, Shelley has thrown for 483 yards and two touchdowns and run for another two scores. More significantly, he’s led the Utes to two of the most important wins since they joined the Pac-12.
After Shelley’s showing in his first start against Oregon, offensive coordinator Troy Taylor said:
“You never know how someone’s going to react in a game. I did think [Shelley] would be poised. He’s always had good vision [in practice]. He’s always made plays with his legs. He’s been accurate. He did all those things on the big stage.
“I kept asking him throughout the week how he was, and he said, ‘Good.’ I asked him if he was going to be nervous, have self-doubt. He was composed and ready the whole week. He was quiet and reserved out on the field and he stayed that way through the whole game.”
Make it two-for-two, with a third chance directly in front of him.
Shelley is undersized, listed at a mere 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, but he throws a nice ball and, as Taylor mentioned, sees the field well. It might be a bit early to make such judgments, but some believe Shelley runs Utah’s offense more deftly than Huntley did.
Wilson, since taking over as the starter at BYU at midseason, has benefited from playing weak opponents — Hawaii, UMass and New Mexico State — and struggled against Northern Illinois and Boise State.
As Sitake said, he’s been far from perfect, although nobody would expect perfection from a teenage college quarterback doing everything for the first time. Wilson has a live arm, is mobile, and has the attitude — the mindset, as his coach put it — that is yet-unencumbered by the continued buffetings of failure. He seems to think anything is possible, and that’s mostly a useful notion.
At times, Wilson has tried to do too much, as was the case in BYU’s close loss to Boise State, when the quarterback attempted to score by running as time expired, after which he said: “I just gotta finish.”
All told, Wilson has thrown for 1,057 yards with 82 completions on 135 passes, including six touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s making an attempt to fully command — and educate himself in — an attack that has periodically struggled through an undulating season.
“We’re finding our identity as an offense,” he said after his team beat UMass. “We’re starting to figure out the path we’re going to be taking. … It’s nice to have the offense rolling.”
Moving into Saturday’s game, the biggest factor for both of the quarterbacks is the same that will determine the heights of their entire college careers — decision-making, poise and leadership. That’s a lot to require of freshmen, but the weight of the burden makes it no less true.
Shelley has carried the load. Wilson has shown promise. Head-to-head, Shelley has a faster car to drive. He is surrounded by playmakers. Wilson must find ways to get everything he can out of what he’s got — fewer athletes.
So far, the edge goes to Shelley.
On both sides, on both counts, though, watching these young QBs establish themselves, discovering what their arms and minds can do, exploring the reaches of their capabilities, is a most fascinating aspect to this year’s rivalry game.
Sitake and Whittingham are OK with it. They’ll have to be.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.