Perhaps the biggest knock on Zach Wilson when he entered the NFL Draft was something that was completely out of the quarterback’s control.
The cancellations and the haphazard scheduling brought about by last year’s hastily constructed and COVID-plagued college football season led to Brigham Young not playing a team from a so-called power conference for the first time since 1975.
Thus, Wilson didn’t have the chance to show if he could measure up against players who tend to more closely fit the profile of the ones he will be facing most often in the NFL, and all the tape of him during the 2020 season was against lesser-caliber or comparable (say, overachieving Coastal Carolina) opponents.
However, as a sophomore in 2019, Wilson and BYU played four consecutive games against Power Five teams, including three from the Pac-12. So, the idea was, why not take a look at those contests and try to get a broader idea of what the scouts might have seen when they turned on their DVDs?
Granted, I am not a scout, general manager or personnel expert. Yet, by looking at Wilson’s play in those games, I hoped to evaluate it and relate it to what the Jets saw in him and thus better understand why they drafted him. Also, perhaps an evaluation of his play could relate it to the bigger picture of what his performance in those games could mean two years later as he now will likely take on NFL competition on a weekly basis in approximately two months.
Aug. 29, 2019—Utah 30, BYU 12: Wilson, 21-for-33, 208 yards, 0 touchdown passes, 2 interceptions
This was by far his worst game of the bunch, with two pick-sixes.
Sept. 7, 2019—BYU 29, Tennessee 26, 2 OT: Wilson 19-for-29, 232, 1, 0
Wilson leads late comeback, resulting in overtime win.
Sept. 14, 2019—BYU 30, USC 27, OT: Wilson, 20-for-33, 280, 1, 0
Lather, rinse, repeat. Another late comeback and OT win.
Sept. 21, 2019—Washington 45, BYU 19: Wilson, 26-for-42, 277, 1, 1
The Cougars were down 21-3 in the first quarter and never recovered.
Utah: This was by far the worst game of the four for Wilson, and had to be devastating. His father, Mike, played on the defensive line for the Utes in the early 1990s. Zach rooted for the Utes as a youngster, but never was offered by the program.
The year before, in Salt Lake City, the visiting Cougars led 27-7 in the third quarter despite a pick-six by Wilson, who had thrown two touchdown passes. But the Utes scored the final 28 points to secure their eighth straight victory in the rivalry. Now, in what would turn out to be Wilson’s final chance to avenge a personal slight, he threw two more interceptions for scores.
The first came after he scrambled and then was being dragged down from behind by a defender while trying to check down, and it put Utah ahead 9-3 in the second quarter. The second one finished Utah’s scoring, and it appeared to come on the first read. He threw to a bracketed receiver when he should have explored other options or thrown it away.
Wilson also had a botched handoff that led to BYU’s other turnover, setting up the Utes’ fourth touchdown.
Wilson did throw some good passes into tight windows on this night, but not nearly enough of them. But, to his credit, perhaps his finest throw of the night came on his last attempt, when, on a designed rollout, he escaped some moderate pressure and found Gunner Romney down the right sideline for a 17-yard gain, fitting the pass right where it needed to be. It set up BYU’s only touchdown on the next play.
Tennessee: Oddly enough, Wilson had fewer impressive throws among his 29 attempts on this night than he did on his 33 passes in a losing performance nine days earlier. But, more important, he avoided the crucial mistakes and he showed one of the attributes NFL scouts and coaches want to see most.
Wilson shook off that crushing loss to Utah, and a mostly pedestrian game against the Volunteers, to rally BYU in the final minutes. The signature play came on third-and-6 from his own 20, with 17 seconds left and the clock running after his own scramble had netted 12 yards. Wilson stepped up in the pocket and found Micah Simon in a seam of the Vols’ deep zone. The play gained 64 yards, and after Wilson and the rest of the offense were able to get to the line of scrimmage so he could spike the ball and stop the clock, BYU kicked a score-tying field goal to force overtime.
Wilson’s perfect slant to Talon Shumway for a 14-yard touchdown on the first overtime possession helped BYU to its eventual victory. On the play, Shumway had inside leverage on his defender and Wilson hit him perfectly in stride just before he reached the end zone.
USC: This game followed a similar arc as the previous week, with a big play by Wilson late in the game helping to save the day for the Cougars prior to OT. However, he was more productive earlier.
On BYU’s second TD drive, Wilson showed a trait that he will need at the NFL level. On third-and-15 from the BYU 21, his first read was clearly to his right. Seeing nothing there, he quickly checked down to running back Ty’Son Williams, who had some open space, and made a nifty run for 18 yards and a first down. That jump-started a 74-yard touchdown drive, capped by a perfect deep fade to Dax Milne for a 30-yard touchdown. Milne was well-covered, and Wilson put it exactly where he had to.
With BYU down 24-20 in the fourth quarter, on first-and-10 from his 48, Wilson avoided a free rusher, stepped up into the pocket and throwing on the run, found Romney open down the deep middle for 35 yards, setting up the go-ahead TD. That touchdown was Wilson’s own 16-yard run on a designed quarterback draw.
Wilson and the offense couldn’t move the ball in overtime. His contested deep ball on third-and-10 was on target, but was knocked away, so BYU won on a long field goal on the next play.
Washington: Perhaps the physical and mental fatigue of two consecutive overtime games had taken its toll. Also, it didn’t help that the Cougars were down 14-3 by the time Wilson and the offense took the field for only the second time.
Although his numbers were better than they were against Utah, this was not a good game for him. Again, a Wilson turnover was directly responsible for an opposition score. On that second drive, a strip sack gave the Huskies a 21-3 lead. Although, to be fair, it was hardly Wilson’s fault that BYU’s right tackle whiffed on the pass rusher, Ryan Bowman, who nailed Wilson. The Cougars appeared to have enough blockers to handle the rushers, i.e., it’s not as if Wilson failed to spot an overload blitz or something.
Washington was able to disregard the BYU running game, rush Wilson heavily and be content to give up short gains the rest of the way. Interestingly, both his lone TD throw and pick were misleading. The touchdown was a pinball shot that was batted by a Washington defender into the hands of BYU’s Matt Bushman. It should have been intercepted. However, the one pick was on target, but Wilson’s intended receiver slipped and fell.
As Jets head coach Robert Saleh said on the team’s in-house film on YouTube and the team’s website, Flight 2021, “His off-platform throws and the things he can do with the football just popped off the tape.”
Wilson can fit the ball into tight windows, and is fearless in delivering it. The Jets won’t say this, but one thing that sets him apart in terms of his off-platform throws is that although predecessor Sam Darnold was good at making something out of nothing, his first instinct when leaving the pocket tended to be to go toward the right sideline. That would limit his field vision somewhat.
Wilson has the tendency to step up, past the collapsing pocket, allowing him to see the entire field. That trait enabled him to make those two crucial fourth-quarter plays against Tennessee and Southern Cal.
Against the Trojans, Wilson also had a Fran Tarkenton-like play in which he scrambled from one side of the field to the other and finally dumped a 3-yard pass to Simon.
Saleh also said, “A lot of the concepts they ran at BYU translate to what we do” under new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, formerly San Francisco’s passing game coordinator.
True, the most noticeable of which is the moving pocket to the right, often culminating with an out route to the sideline. The Cougars used that concept numerous times in these games, both short and intermediate and even sometimes deep.
“That was the first thing,” Saleh said about scouting Wilson. “You actually saw him making the throws we would ask him to make within our scheme.”
Jets director of player personnel Chad Alexander added, also on that in-house film, “He can make throws from all different angles. He can improvise. He can create.”
He can scramble well and buy time, yes. And he had that one score on a designed run. But in Jimmy Garoppolo’s only full season with San Francisco, he rushed for 62 yards on 46 carries. Thus, don’t expect a lot of designed runs from the 6-3, 209-pound Wilson.
As for negatives, the quarterback had two passes tipped at the line of scrimmage against USC, and that was an occasional problem in the spring. That bears watching. Like many young quarterbacks, he sometimes, as a sophomore in those games, seemed loath to come off of BYU coordinator Jeff Grimes’ designed first read, and threw to well-covered targets. But, more often than not in those 50-50 situations, he gave his receiver a chance. He also went through progressions quickly when necessary, especially in crucial situations on third down and/or late in games.
None of this is a guarantee of anything, and these four games were far from perfect, but one can see what impressed the Jets. Whether Wilson can translate all that to the pros remains to be seen.