As football has evolved, the evaluation of the quarterback position has evolved with it. Not long ago, certain external factors, such as size and lateral arm strength, were viewed as prerequisites to being a franchise quarterback. But now, other traits, such as athleticism, arm elasticity, and off-script ability are starting to carry more weight. Amidst this shift in paradigms, a prospect like BYU QB Zach Wilson can rise up the ranks.
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson’s road to 2020
Zach Wilson has been receiving playing time as BYU’s quarterback since 2018, but he hasn’t always been the unquestioned starter.
Injuries and inconsistency have limited his output over the years, and in 2019, he regressed from his 2018 numbers, completing just 62 percent of his passes for 2,382 yards, a 7.5 yards-per-attempt average, and an 11:9 touchdown-interception ratio.
Because of this underperformance, Wilson came into the 2020 season largely under the radar. But after a torrid 4-0 start in which he’s accounted for 14 total touchdowns, Wilson is putting himself on the map.
Through four games, Wilson has been much improved from his 2019 form. He’s completed a whopping 81.2 percent of his passes for 1,241 yards, eight scores, and just one interception, averaging 12.3 yards per attempt — a near five-yard increase from last year. Thus far in October, he’s 46 for 56 for 617 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks.
Statistically, Wilson has skyrocketed, but he hasn’t just improved from a performance standpoint; he’s also improved from a diagnostic standpoint. While there’s still work left to do, there rests NFL potential in the foundational aspects of his game, and he carries a few traits that are particularly important in the game of modern football.
The NFL-conducive traits of BYU QB Zach Wilson
Production used to be valuable for a quarterback just for production’s sake. But as the scouting process for the position evolves, how a quarterback produces has become more and more important. Quarterbacks who show more malleability, more creation ability, and the capacity to adapt to their circumstances, are starting to become more valuable.
In a limited sample size against below-average competition this season, BYU’s Zach Wilson has proven that he has these coveted off-script traits, to some degree. The assortment of clips below does well to elaborate on this.
Wilson’s calm in the face of pressure
We’ll start off with one of Wilson’s first throws against the UTSA Roadrunners. This is a fairly routine play for NFL quarterbacks, but not all college quarterbacks have the comfort that Wilson shows amidst chaos. Watch as the BYU QB steps back, immediately senses pressure, and steps up while staying composed, firing a dart to the middle of the field.
Also notice that Wilson has to roll his right shoulder forward as he steps up in order to avoid the outstretched hand of a defender. Even after doing this, he manages to get his shoulders back around and generate the necessary torque to deliver a fast, timely ball. Quarterbacks need these quick-reacting traits to transcend adversity at the NFL level, and that’s something Wilson brings to the table.
Here’s another play, this time against Louisiana Tech, where Wilson’s malleability in the face of pressure is evident. Here, the BYU QB has time to set his base, but not long after the snap, a rusher off the right edge catches his attention. He whirls around to his left, only to find that the pocket is closing in on him.
Rather than panicking, Wilson stays cool under duress. In the span of a mere second, he gets his eyes and his feet back around, pinpoints a one-on-one matchup along the sideline, and rips a laser that has enough velocity to sear past the defensive back and into the hands of the receiver for a touchdown.
Wilson’s ability to extend plays and improvise
Generating velocity alone isn’t good enough at the NFL level anymore; you also have to be able to do so when you don’t have the opportunity to set your feet or get comfortable. Wilson has shown that, in the heat of the moment, he can do what’s necessary to make the throw.
Here’s one more play that emphasizes Zach Wilson’s ability to create off-script. Here, against UTSA, Wilson rolls out to his right in the red zone, having the foresight to understand that moving in the red zone can open up different windows and throwing angles.
Upon rolling, however, Wilson soon finds himself running out of real estate. Roaming toward the sideline, Wilson sees a fleeting opportunity, and he throws a risky pass into the corner, lofting it where only his receiver can reach up to bring it in.
The receiver makes a great play, getting both of his feet in bounds while extending for the ball, but Wilson’s ability to place the ball while on the run is what makes this play possible.
Wilson’s NFL Draft stock is steadily rising
These are just a few examples of Zach Wilson’s improvement in 2020. In addition to his off-script ability, the BYU QB has also shown growth going through his progressions, refined his mechanics, and sharpened his processing skills with offseason film work. But the aspect of Wilson’s game that will give him the best chance at the NFL level is his flexibility in the face of adversity, because that’s something not every young quarterback possesses.
On top of the examples shown above, Wilson has also displayed above-average athletic ability — he should test in the 4.7-4.8 range in the 2021 offseason — and while he’s not elite in that department, he has more than enough functional athleticism to extend plays. Wilson can also change his arm angle based on situational factors, and more than once, he’s used a pump fake, shovel pass combo in the pocket, to fake out defenders and create extra space for his receivers.
Some quarterbacks are process-oriented, almost to the point where it becomes robotic. While this sounds good in theory, these kinds of quarterbacks are also the ones who most often falter when faced with adversity.
Quarterbacks who are adaptable and comfortable with the fluctuating circumstances of a given play, even within seconds and milliseconds, are coveted in today’s game, and Zach Wilson of BYU has flashed the traits necessary to fit that mold. And against the Houston Cougars tonight, he’ll look to keep adding evidence to his draft profile.
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