Prospect Microscope: Meet BYU QB Zach Wilson

Photo: USA TODAY NETWORK

Brigham Young University is widely known as one of the oldest running college programs in the country. With plenty of quarterbacks coming out of the 1980s and 90s, Jim McMahon (1982) and Steve Young (1984) are two names that will forever be etched into school history for their illustrious careers. They are also the only two BYU signal-callers who have gone on to become first-round picks. 

Robbie Bosco’s magical national title run in 1984 will always be remarkable, and his legacy will forever be remembered as such. He was also the runner up for the Heisman Trophy in back-to-back seasons (1984 and 1985). Ty Detmer’s 1990 season is still one of the most memorable throughout BYU’s storied history, and he remains the program’s only Heisman winner. Detmer is also the last player from a non-Power 5 conference to take home the award.

You would have to go all the way back to John Beck in 2007 to find the last passer that was selected in an NFL draft. The former second-round pick bounced around the NFL and didn’t experience nearly the same success as some of his predecessors. But Beck has managed to still have an effect on the program's newest pupil. Fast forward to over a decade later and BYU once again has a quarterback prospect that is trending upward

The engineer of the Cougars attack over the past two and half seasons has been Zach Wilson. He was originally committed to Boise State, but after having a change of heart, and considering BYU was without a quarterback during the 2018 recruiting cycle, Wilson saw an opportunity to seize the moment as an immediate contributor. 

And that he was. He became the seventh true freshman to start a game and the youngest quarterback (at 19 years old) in program history to do so. Wilson went on to finish with 1,578 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions; he started in seven of the nine games that he played in.

Entering the 2020 season, evaluators are always searching for the next quarterback prospect that wasn’t previously high on some radars but takes a massive step forward in their development—a step that places them squarely in the early round discussions. Florida’s Kyle Trask is one player that has managed to make that leap. Wilson is also beginning to piece together a strong resume through four games. In those contests, the junior quarterback has managed to throw for 1,241 passing yards, eight touchdowns, and one interception while completing 81% of his passes; the eight passing touchdowns help make up his running season total of 14. Wilson, at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, has the fifth-best independent quarterback rating (IQR) of any signal-caller in the country, according to Sports Info Solutions. The only names that he trails are Trevor Lawrence, Mac Jones, and Matt Corral. The only other player that is above him outside of the Power 5 is Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall (prior to Wednesday night’s game against Louisiana-Lafayette). 

If Wilson’s season, to date, is summed in one word after leading BYU to a 4-0 record, it would be efficient. There haven’t been many more throwers in the country that have been more decisive and precise with the ball. Wilson 81.2% completion percentage currently ranks as the best in the nation. His 12.3 yards per attempt ranks third in the country while his 84.2% on target percentage is good for seventh-best for quarterbacks who have attempted at least 50 throws this season.

Wilson has a unique style and is known to play with controlled chaos. It’s quite the oxymoron for a player that spent last season battling through injuries, and it clearly showed in spurts during some outings during his sophomore season. After playing in the first five games last season, Wilson underwent a surgical procedure after fracturing his right thumb following a tackle attempt against Toledo after it hauled in an interception. This wasn’t the first time that Wilson was dealt with some adversity though. During the spring prior to the 2019 season, he also underwent a procedure to repair the labrum in his right shoulder. The time off forced him to focus more on the minor details of the position while also being able to discover the holes in his game. 

In a similar situation, Wilson took the same approach prior to his return against Idaho State. After finishing the last three games of the season, he suffered a challenging, 13-3, defeat at the hands of San Diego State. 

When evaluating quarterbacks during the pre-draft process, I want to dive into the player’s worst performances first. I do that because, unlike any other position, I want to see how they handle adversity and if they are able to battle back from it. 

In the loss to San Diego State to end the 2019 regular season, it’s easy to notice Wilson was the ultimate competitor who showed poise, control, and lived life on the edge as far as the depths that he would go to make plays happen for the offense. Those essential points are also what was inconsistent in his sophomore year, as he finished with 2,382 passing yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions while accumulating a 62% completion percentage. 

Wilson is obviously still uncomfortable post-surgery, but one of the more noticeable differences between the last four games of the 2019 season through the first four of 2020 is how much more wide open the offense has become. It’s natural to believe that a quarterback will take the next steps in their development from Year 2 to Year 3 due to comfort in the scheme; this is the third consecutive year Wilson has played in the same system.

Wilson’s 7.7 yards per attempt during the backstretch of his sophomore campaign has now increased to 12.2 through the early stages of his junior year. The Cougars offense was very cautious with a lot of quick throws to the slot, on the perimeter, in shallow crossers off various mixtures of mesh concepts, and different types of tight end screens to the talented Matt Bushman. It was clear BYU was protecting Wilson from his own ways but also simplifying everything for him so he was then able to get the ball out quicker. Whether it was youth, nervousness, or protecting him based on durability concerns, any worries have been firmly thrown out of the window this season. 

There’s a new and improved BYU offense, and Wilson is operating at a career-high level. He’s for some of the best single-season totals in school history. It’s not only those in Provo, Utah, that have taken notice. The whispers around draft circles have now turned into full-fledged, loud conversations. 

The 2021 quarterback class lacks depth after the Big 3 in Lawrence, Justin Fields, and Lance; but there are plenty of prospects that are vying to fill the void in the middle of what already is shaping up to be another strong offensive group as a whole. 

The Scouting Report

Size: 6-foot-3, 210 pounds

Positives (+)

Wilson is unafraid when he’s playing the game on edge. There’s no play that he feels that can’t make. Whether it’s a run to create extra opportunities or miraculous throws that take special types of heroics in order to complete, he’s not shy about taking distant measures. Wilson can be classified as a gunslinger, and while I think he straddles that line, he can also fall under the umbrella of having a lot of confidence in his ability to make certain throws even in contested situations.

One of the biggest improvements in Wilson’s game is his deep touch abilities. After shoulder and thumb injuries as a sophomore, his overall arm strength was negatively affected. In my original assessment, I thought Wilson had a very average arm and lacked a lot of pop, specifically on downfield throws. Many of his attempts hung in the air too long and the bottom often fell out of it, which left passes falling short frequently. Now Wilson’s healthy, and there’s more urgency and life behind his throws, especially on those deep balls. Not only does his arm look more lively, but Wilson displays more confidence as well.

There was a particular touchdown throw during a Week 3 win over Louisiana Tech that was one of the more confident passes we’ve seen from Wilson this season. He does an excellent job of controlling the middle-of-the-field safety with his eyes running a double vertical play out of a two tight end set. Wilson stared down the pattern that’s running down the right hash, and as he’s staring down this route, he forces the safety to respect his eyes. The safety takes the bait for a brief second, which is just enough time for him to create a window of opportunity to squeeze into the outside vertical which easily ran past the cornerback.

Wilson also shows he’s fully healthy with how well he’s making far hash throws outside of the numbers. Gift routes to the single receiver side or one that’s lined up by their lonesome of one side of the formation is a staple in BYU’s offense. It’s an easy completion that’s stealing yardage, but anytime a far hash throw has to be made, it can be difficult due to disguises in coverage and complexity of the throw based on the distance and timing of targets. 

The Cougars have added this to their offense, and it’s one that has become almost automatic. Through four games, on this particular route, Wilson is 11-of-14 for 134 yards with an on-target percentage of 85.7. It’s clear that throwing those patterns is one that he’s developed the utmost confidence within his arsenal of throws. 

Off script creation has now become a requirement for young quarterbacks entering the league. With the discrepancies and readiness differences of offensive and defensive lineman entering the NFL, it’s important to have players under center that can create outside of structure. Playing in that way is a major part of Wilson’s game. A lot of previous early-round quarterbacks successful in the NFL is creating outside of the normal element of the offense. While being an average athlete, Wilson has plenty of athleticism within the pocket to move, elude, and avoid defenders, but more often than not he also has the smarts of knowing when to escape and create or simply run to stay ahead of the chains. It’s a trait high up on the priorities list, and he already has it ready made within his game.

Negatives (–)

While Wilson knows when to avoid pressure, there are some circumstances where he leaves you scratching your head. One habit that he has developed and will eventually need to get rid of is turning his back to the defense and attempting to circle out of the pocket. It’s seen more often in 2019, but he still has some cases where he tries to put the defense in a spin cycle in hopes of deterring them in wrong directions to break contain. This is very similar to a signature move that Russell Wilson has made as a staple of his game, but this Wilson isn’t nearly the athlete that he is. Wilson will need to continue to show progress climbing the pocket vertically and not displaying hesitation climbing into the eye of the storm in order to keep his eyes downfield prior to making throws.

These are the types of plays that are littered in Wilson film from the 2019 season and during the early stages of 2020. He’s bailed out by the wide receiver making a miraculous catch, but the quick spin in the pocket shows the tendency to execute that type of move is a habit when he’s unable to find targets in his initial progression. 

Durability is another factor following Wilson’s surgical procedures to his throwing hand and shoulder. Even though he suffered a fractured thumb during a tackle attempt, there will always be some pause when talking about an injury to the throwing shoulder of a quarterback. With a body that still has some maturity to add, he most likely will also enter the NFL with an underdeveloped body structure. It may come over time with room to add more weight.

Final Summary

Wilson’s 2019 and 2020 seasons are two different tales. When watching both in-depth, there are two different players on film. During 2019, he was a little banged up, and his game suffered as a result. Now, that he’s fully healthy in 2020, it’s easy to notice why his draft stock is soaring. While studying him, Wilson reminded me of Jimmy Garoppolo coming out of Eastern Illinois. While Wilson is a better athlete than the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, they share lots of similar traits as passers. Both possess a compact, quick release that’s effortless with a quick flick of the wrist. While driving the ball down the field isn’t the areas that neither relied on in their given schemes, they both share the ability to process information pre-snap and execute quick throws in a grip-it-and-rip-it nature; they both, based on defensive structures prior to the snap, make a living off of throwing the ball quickly in order to take advantage of favorable matchups.

Wilson has taken more chances down the field more in 2020, but he’s efficient when in the rhythm of the offense. He’s able to take advantage of designed roll outs and plays that attack one side of the field. Wilson, playing behind a superb offensive front, has been spoiled with plenty of time to throw. He still needs more experience executing hot reads and getting the ball out quicker to known outlets. 

When facing pressure, he’s shown to be capable of getting out of harm's way, but when offered too much time and then flushed out of the pocket, he can be a bit dangerous with the ball. More often than not it’s been successful for him, but it’s an area that could come back to hurt him in the long-run. There’s always a risk when taking chances out of structure, but there are cross-body throws back across the grain and 50-50 opportunities in heavy traffic that are easily avoidable by throwing the ball out of bounds or simply taking advantage of the grass that’s in front of him as a running threat.

Right now, Wilson is trending towards being a top-100 selection. With ample amounts of opportunity to show continued growth and development, we could revisit this discussion a couple of months and talk about Wilson as an even bigger riser. If he continues to distance himself from previous durability concerns, takes care of the ball, and expounds on what he’s shown so far through four games, he will continue to rise. Wilson can benefit from the precipitous drop off in the current QB class. 

In search of the next player to fill that void, the Cougars signal-caller could find himself not only one of the biggest risers at the position but of any in this draft class.

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Founder of ClimbingThePocket.com. Former QB and Coach at North Carolina Central Univ.

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