Freshman QB Zach Wilson shines in first start

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BYU quarterback Zach Wilson throws a pass in his first BYU start against Hawaii on Oct. 13. (BYU Photo/Nate Edwards)

Highly-touted BYU freshman quarterback Zach Wilson made his first career start for the Cougars against the University of Hawaii on Oct. 13. Cougar fans were treated to an electrifying performance resulting in a 49-23 Homecoming victory at LaVell’s house. 

Since leading a fourth-quarter scoring drive against Utah State on Oct. 5, speculation swirled throughout the media and BYU sports community regarding Wilson’s status for Hawaii. Reports began surfacing later in the week that Wilson would indeed get the nod. 

“We feel like everyone needs to do their job every week, there are a lot of positions where we’ll be making some changes and (quarterback) just happened to be one of them,” said BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. “Going into it, especially in the last couple of weeks, we felt like (Wilson) was good enough to give him the starting spot because he deserved it.”

Wilson starred at Corner Canyon High School in Draper, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards his senior year and leading the Chargers to the Utah 5A state semifinal. An early commit to Boise State, the 6 feet 3 inch dual-threat backed out and officially signed with the Cougars in February.

Following McNeese and Utah State, Wilson took the reins of a BYU offense that had been outscored 80-27 in two previous losses and had seemingly lost its identity. Finishing 16 for 24 in completions with three touchdowns and 194 passing yards, Wilson provided the spark the offense needed to get back in the win column.

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity, and I’m trying to make the most of it,” Wilson said. “Everyone knows that a quarterback can’t be successful without a good offensive line, receivers or scheme, so I think everything’s in place.”

The 2017 Utah Mr. Football runner-up led seven scoring drives and connected with nine different receivers on the night.

“(The coaches) let me know last week at practice that we were switching our mindset a little bit,” Wilson said. “That’s not necessarily because I was coming in, but because we knew that the offense had to make a big step. I think we did that (tonight) all around.”

The seventh — and youngest — true freshman to start for the Cougars, Wilson’s 167.5 pass efficiency rating was the highest mark for a freshman starting debut in school history.

In addition to his three touchdown passes, including strikes to fellow freshmen Dallin Holker and Gunner Romney, Wilson scrambled into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown on a third and long situation in the first quarter.

“There were some really good things … for what we recruited him to do he did well,” Sitake said. “I’m pleased with the way that he led the team, and he’s going to keep competing to keep that spot. That’s going to be the goal with Zach and everyone else that’s starting — if they want to hold onto their spot, they have to keep competing and find a way to hold onto the starting role.”

Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson soaks in the homecoming atmosphere at LaVell Edwards Stadium after defeating Hawaii in his first career start on Oct. 13. (BYU Photo/Nate Edwards)

Inserting Wilson into the starting lineup shifted former starter Tanner Mangum to the bench, a senior with 27 career starts. Wilson said Mangum has been nothing but gracious and supportive following the switch.

“We have nothing but love for each other. We help each other out with anything,” Wilson said. “It’s a tough spot to be put in that situation, but we always separate life from football, and we realize that there’s no reason to be mad or hate. We always want what’s best for the team.”

Wilson also said he and Mangum have a good friendship and that Mangum is one of his biggest supporters.

The Wilson-led offense’s 49 points were the most for the Cougars since putting up 51 against UMass in 2016. The offense that showed up against Hawaii boosted the Cougar defense, bringing a superior level of play against the Rainbow Warriors’ high-powered offense.

“I think that when the offense is rolling like that, it takes the pressure off the defense and lets us play more free just because we can gamble and take some risks that we usually aren’t able to take if it’s a tighter game,” sophomore linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi said. “To be able to have the offense put us in that position helped a ton.”

Despite being thrust into the national spotlight early on as a freshman, Wilson doesn’t see the extra attention as a distraction to his game.

“Football is a game we’ve all played since we were little,” Wilson said. “I try to approach it like it’s the same game I’ve played since I was little, no matter what level it is or how many people are watching.”

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