Provo • Zach Wilson is a changed man.
The BYU starting quarterback is bigger, faster and has a newfound focus out on the field.
The improvement from the junior has been evident from the Cougars' first two games. Wilson is completing 80% of his passes and has thrown for 624 yards and four touchdowns, while giving up one interception.
Wilson’s performances so far this season have started to garner national attention and placed the junior on “The Too-Early Heisman Watch” list on Sports Illustrated. And, following last week’s performance against Troy, Wilson was named one of the Davey O’Brien Award Great 8 quarterbacks for the week and earned a spot on the Davey O’Brien Watch list.
But how did Wilson find himself in this position?
BYU coach Kalani Sitake feels Wilson’s health plays a large role in the quarterback’s improvement, but it is also due to Wilson’s comfort level with the game and being a starter.
“The experience he’s had, I think, is paying off for him, but the kid’s always going to work hard. And when he’s healthy, he can do a lot more in his off season and his preparation,” Sitake said. “… He’s been set to play football since he was young, when he was at Corner Canyon, maybe even before that. I think his mind and preparation has always been there. His body is the thing that needs to keep up. Once it’s all clicking, I think he can do some special things for us.”
Quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said the biggest difference he’s noticed in his starter is Wilson is older and physically more mature. Plus, Wilson is healthy now after dealing with injuries his first two seasons.
However, Roderick also believes the improvement stems from Wilson making the game simple — he’s trying to make the easiest play on each snap. He’s not forcing things. And it helps that the offense as a whole has been a dominating force, allowing Wilson to play to his fullest potential.
“He’s a veteran player for us, he’s just played so much football for us,” Roderick said. “That’s typically what you see with quarterbacks, in general. All the good ones that have played at this school, most of them were ok early in their career and then really good towards later years in their career. That happens in the NFL and it happens all over college football.”
Another benefit to Wilson’s game has been the production from the receivers.
When the Cougars graduated their top three wide receivers last year (Talon Shumway, Micah Simon and Aleva Hifo), and then lost powerhouse tight end Matt Bushman a week before the 2020 season started, there was some concern if the offense would be able to have the same type of production through the air this year.
But receivers Gunner Romney and Dax Milne, along with Neil Pau’u and even running back Lopini Katoa, have really stepped up to the opportunity.
Through two games, Romney leads all receivers with 272 yards and one touchdown on nine receptions and Milne has 175 yards and one touchdown on 10 receptions. Pau’u has 64 yards on five receptions and Katoa has added 67 yards on seven receptions.
All four guys are juniors and have played a good amount of game minutes for the Cougars.
“These guys have played a lot of ball and it’s showing,” Roderick said. “And they’re leading the way for those younger guys who are also showing up.”
Roderick doesn’t know if Wilson will be able to maintain the same completion rate throughout the season, but would like his quarterback to be around the 70% area. But while the 70% goal could be reached through dinks and dunks, the Cougars have been trying to be more aggressive and attack more down the field.
During the offseason, the Cougars worked on building a passing game that would be in sync with the running game so as to build the best attack possible to hurt their opponents' defense more.
“The fact that we’ve had quite a few big plays and thrown a good completion percentage so far is good, but it’s two games,” Roderick said. “So we have to keep doing it. But I do think a big reason why he’s throwing a high completion percentage is what I said earlier — he’s keeping the game simple. So, when the shot is there, he’s taking it. And when it’s not, he’s checking the ball down. And if he continues to do that, I think he’s going to have a very high completion percentage and I think we’re going to win a lot of games.”
LOUISIANA TECH AT BYU
At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Kickoff » Friday, 7 p.m.
TV » ESPN2
Radio » 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius 143.
Records » BYU 2-0; La. Tech 2-0
All-time series » First meeting
About BYU » The Cougars put up more than 600 yards against Troy (472 in the air and 192 on the ground) — the most since putting up 741 against Wagner in 2015. … BYU is No. 2 nationally in scoring offense and No. 2 in scoring defense through two games. … Against Troy, BYU had a pair of 100-yard receivers for the first time since 2015 in Dax Milne (140 yards, seven receptions) and Gunner Romney (138 yards, five receptions).
About La. Tech » The Bulldogs are coming off a 10-win season in 2019 and six consecutive bowl victories. … Quarterback Luke Anthony has thrown for 463 yards and eight touchdowns so far this season on 30 of 51 passing. … Senior wide receiver has 148 yards and one touchdown on nine receptions.