Eye On The Y: Why are coaches turning to freshman Zach Wilson at quarterback? He’s a better athlete, for starters

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (11) runs the ball for the Cougars on a quarterback keeper, in football action Brigham Young Cougars vs. McNeese State Cowboys, at Lavell Edwards Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018.

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Provo • After observing college football for more than 30 years and focusing especially hard on it the past 10 years in my assignment to cover BYU, I’ve become convinced that offenses need an athletic, dual-threat quarterback to reach their full potential.

You have to have a playmaker back there who can make plays with his arm and his feet. Unless they are protected by NFL-caliber offensive linemen, pure drop-back passers with little or no ability to escape pass rushes find it difficult to thrive.

That’s why I think freshman Zach Wilson will give the Cougars a better chance to beat 6-1 Hawaii on Saturday (8:15 p.m., ESPN2) than senior Tanner Mangum. Wilson is simply a better athlete than Mangum, has a higher upside, and is more dynamic.

Earlier Thursday, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that coaches plan to start Wilson over Mangum against the Warriors, barring any last-minute injury or unforeseen happening. We had to hedge a bit with that sentence-ending clause because there are still a couple practices remaining before the rematch of BYU’s 30-20 win in the Islands last November, and players aren’t immune from getting injured in practice.

But really, this development not a big surprise. Some might say this was the plan all along, and might have happened earlier if Mangum had not played well in the 24-21 upset of Wisconsin. Some of the same sources who confirmed the switch this week told me that coaches were “this close” to making the move after the 21-18 loss to Cal, but figured Mangum’s game-managing skills would be valuable and needed in the face of 80,000 fans at Camp Randall.

Wilson’s superior athleticism is the reason he quickly moved past Joe Critchlow in preseason camp and allowed coaches to move Beau Hoge to running back; And there’s a reason why freshman Jaren Hall is widely considered to be the next QB in line, if Wilson struggles. Hall is one of the best athletes on the team.

“We evaluate every position every week,” passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick said Wednesday. “Quarterback is no different. As the season goes along, some guys keep improving, and some times some guys take steps forward or steps backward. The competition continues all year.”

Based on how they’ve played when Wilson entered the McNeese and USU games, teammates seemingly have the new guy’s back. He might be the spark the listing offense needs. Amazingly, BYU has scored just seven total points (all against Wisconsin) in the first quarter this season.

“Obviously, everybody is going to play hard for every single quarterback there is, and everybody is going to go hard no matter the circumstances,” receiver Gunner Romney said Wednesday when I asked him if players could subconsciously play harder with Wilson under center.

“But I think it is just a different energy.” Romney concluded.

A better energy? Saturday will tell the tale.

Rounding Them Up

In case you missed them, here are some of the stories, player profiles and columns The Tribune has brought to you this past week:

• As the losses have started to pile up, BYU’s defense has gotten more and more conservative the past few weeks. Why did the Cougars barely blitz at all in the loss to USU? Because they couldn’t stop the run first, Sitake said. Trib

• Hardly any schools recruited BYU offensive lineman Brady Christensen out of Bountiful High, but the two-sport star grew six inches and added a bunch of weight and earned a starting role as a freshman. Here’s how Christensen did it. Trib

• Sports fans around the state of Utah and BYU fans worldwide mourned the loss midweek of legendary TV and radio broadcaster Paul James, who called Cougar games for 36 years. Trib

• Who made the call to switch quarterbacks? It was head coach Kalani Sitake. The coach said so himself at his weekly Monday press briefing. Trib

• Remember that BYU football team that established its identity in wins over Arizona and Wisconsin as a power team that could run the football on offense and stop the run on defense? Well, it has seemingly disappeared. Trib

Views From Elsewhere

• Doug Robinson of the Deseret News caught up with former BYU baseball star Doug Howard, an ex-Major Leaguer. DNews

• The Deseret News’ Brandon Gurney shed more light on the inspirational way BYU linebacker Sione Takitaki has turned around his life. DNews

• Folks in the Islands are breathing a sigh of relief after standout Cole McDonald missed the win over Wyoming last week. That’s because the Star-Advertiser says the talented quarterback will play against BYU. Star


After making his non-announcement regarding the starting quarterback Saturday, Grimes acknowledged that some players handle the pressure of the bright lights better than others.

“A guy does have to show on a daily basis that he is preparing the right way,” he said. “So practice does matter. But there is something different about what a guy does in a game. Some guys can come out and practice and do great every day in practice, but they go over there when the lights are on and they don’t perform as well. I don’t believe in the idea of a … gamer, but some guys handle the pressure better than others. The other thing you gotta remember is that it is easier to come into a late situation than it is to be the starter and play well the whole time. I am not downplaying what Zach [Wilson] did. He did a great job and I am happy for him. I am proud of him. But that’s different.”

Around campus

• BYU’s Peter Kuest was named the West Coast Conference Golfer of the Month for September after he won the William H. Tucker Invitational. The Cougars won the team portion of the tournament as well.

• BYU’s women’s soccer team remained the only team in the WCC to have won every league game this season. The Cougars (8-3-1) play at Pepperdine on Saturday.

• Despite dropping a set at San Diego, the BYU women’s volleyball team stayed undefeated and held on to its No. 1 national ranking with a 3-1 win over the Toreros last Friday. The Cougars (16-0, 6-0 WCC) play at San Francisco Thursday night and at Santa Clara Saturday afternoon.

Looking ahead

After hosting Hawaii on Saturday night, the BYU football team will get a much-needed break after playing one of the most difficult schedules in the country the first half of the 2018 season. The Cougars will return to action on Oct. 27 at LES against Northern Illinois. The Huskies are 3-3 heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Ohio and will also have a bye before facing BYU.

After hosting NIU, BYU will play three of its four November games on the road, beginning Nov. 3 at always-tough Boise State.