9/10 (2 TD)
22/28 (3 TD)
Outside the Pocket: 2/3
Under Pressure: 1/3
Red Zone: 4/5 (3 TD)
3rd/4th Down: 5/6 (3 conversions)
Forced Adjustments: 1
Explosive Plays (25+ yards and/or touchdown): 8
Watching BYU is about as fun as weekends get right now. Whether it's Friday night or Saturday night, the Cougars offense has become must-watch television thanks to their blossoming star at quarterback, Zach Wilson. The junior shot caller built on his Heisman campaign once again last Friday, crushing a Boise State team that was (and still is) set to compete for the Mountain West title.
What's impressed with Wilson this year is not just how good he has been in a vacuum, but how good he has been relative to what he was last season. While not a bad player in 2019, Wilson maintained just 7.5 yards per pass and 12 touchdowns to nine interceptions. His production was wholly unremarkable, if solid. 2020 has been a much different story and his growth as a player has been obvious.
From the jump against Boise, Wilson showed the duality in where he is at mentally right now. On the one hand, it is true that Wilson is a far better and more consistent decision maker than he was a season ago. That show of development alone is important, even without fully considering how far he may or may not have come. Wilson still has a ways to go, though, and his first two attempts of the game show both his promise and his room for growth.
In this clip, BYU come out in a 3x1 formation with the solo receiver to the slightly shorter side of the field. The running back was initially to the offense’s left, but Wilson shifted him over to the right just before the snap. With Boise State having just three down linemen, Wilson understands that the fourth rusher (if there was going to be one) would have to be one of the linebackers. If the stand-up outside linebacker comes, Wilson can flip it to the back on the swing route and hope he wins in space versus the inside linebacker. If the inside linebacker comes, Wilson simply “replaces” him with the ball to the slant receiver, which is exactly what happens. Nothing spectacular, but it’s an instance of Wilson at least being aware of the defense’s options early in the down based on alignment.
On his next attempt, though, Wilson earned the opposite result. The stand-up outside linebacker once again dropped into coverage, but rather than play around him, Wilson tried to basically throw the ball right through him. Wilson deserved to be picked off for it.
This time, Boise State is in a two-high shell with the outside cornerback playing off-coverage against the receiver to the short side of the field. BYU’s tight end is running a bender, while the wide receiver is running a 10-yard out. With the cornerback in off-coverage, Wilson knows that should be open when it breaks, so he spends the early part of the snap checking the boundary safety. Wilson peeps the boundary safety and sees he is sitting in a quarter-zone, as it appears BYU is in a quarter-quarter-half look (Cover 6). Cross that one off the mental checklist. In turn, Wilson then takes his eyes to the out route, but fails to consider or respect the outside linebacker dropping back. Wilson tries to fit the ball over him, but it does not work and he almost pays with an interception.
A play like this perfectly illustrates a young quarterback having the right overall framework for how to execute this play, without fully considering everything the defense can do. He does well to check the safety, know the bender is capped, and move on to the out route vs off-coverage. But failing to respect the dropper is something that will bite him in the butt as time goes on, especially in the league (looking at you, Baker Mayfield).
Inklings of mental progress is not really what got anybody in the door with Wilson, though. Wilson’s selling point is his arm strength. Velocity, distance, sleight of hand, comfort in throwing from any platform — every box that falls under the larger category of arm strength, Wilson checks it off with ease.
These two clips are just some examples of good ol’ fashioned arm strength from the pocket. In the first play, Wilson rips a deep comeback on the opposite sideline. He puts plenty of juice to get it there on time and leaves it perfectly towards the receiver’s outside shoulder away from the cornerback. In the second clip, Wilson is afforded an eternity in the pocket by his offensive line and repays them with a screamer down the middle. BYU appears to be running a deep post + deep crosser combination on that play. Against two-high shells like the one Boise State is in, the idea is that the deep crosser clears out the middle for the post. With the safety matching the deep crosser, that is exactly what happens here, and Wilson fires in a beauty about 45 yards from where he was standing.
Now, here is what gets people going with Wilson. If you have been on Twitter or turned on ESPN at any point since Friday night, you have probably seen this clip already. But it’s worth watching again, and again, and again. Wilson’s ease of arm strength to rip this ball about 48 yards while on the move and fit a low window on the sideline is just outrageous. Wilson could not afford to leave this ball high, nor could he afford for this to arrive any later than it did. It had to be low, away, and there in a hurry — and Wilson delivered like it was nothing.
In addition to his arm strength, Wilson also proved himself a dangerous runner against Boise State. He can handle designed runs as well as he can get outside the pocket and scramble. It’s unlikely Wilson is ever someone who leads the league in rushing among quarterbacks, but it’s entirely plausible he falls into that second category of “still very much a threat the defense has to keep track of.”
The touchdown run here is a designed QB draw. At the snap, Wilson reads how the box players handle the numbers problem to the field. Since the strong side linebacker immediately flies to the flat and vacates the box, BYU now has five blockers for five defenders in the box, giving Wilson the green light to charge forward. It took some bobbin’ and weavin’ for Wilson to find the end zone, but he was able to do so, thanks in large part to his dangerous quickness in short areas.
As most of his games are at this point, Wilson’s performance against Boise State was a perfect illustration of his limitless potential. Not only has he already proven he can learn and grow into the position, at least to some degree, but his arm strength, mobility, and mind for playmaking are all as good as anyone else in the class. Simply having all the physical tools and not being an outright moron makes Wilson a first-round prospect, let alone how much more he can show in terms of mental progress.
BYU’s last handful of games will be a great chance for Wilson to propel himself into the conversation for QB2. The QB1 spot feels locked up by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, but it’s not outrageous to think Wilson could jump Ohio State’s Justin Fields for QB2, at least in terms of draft position.