By Alex Kurpeski
Heading into the 2020 college football season, it was clear that Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields would be the top two quarterbacks in the country. Both Lawrence and Fields were five-star recruits in the 2018 class and have been projected to be top-five selections in the 2021 NFL Draft since they started their first games. Joining Lawrence and Fields in the first-round conversation was a relatively unknown unicorn by the name of Trey Lance. Lance, a one-year starter for the North Dakota State football program, was a hyper-athletic redshirt freshman who had compiled over 40 touchdowns while throwing zero interceptions in his lone season as a starter. With a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Lawrence, a generational prospect like Fields, and a mystical marvel like Lance, there seemed to be little room for another quarterback to sneak into the top-ten conversation. But then Zach Wilson happened.
Wilson entered his junior year for Brigham Young University as a darkhorse breakout candidate in the eyes of many devy enthusiasts. After all, he had the size (6’3, 210 lbs), mobility, and poise that NFL teams loved in a prospect. Unfortunately for Wilson, he played for BYU. The Cougars have never been a popular destination for non-Mormon recruits, with their most high-profile NFL product from this decade being Taysom Hill, who has started five games as a 31-year-old NFL quarterback.
Wilson’s first two seasons with BYU were solid, as he displayed great technique and athleticism while posting solid numbers across the board. In his first 18 games as a college quarterback, Wilson completed 65.6% of his passes for 3,960 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Not bad by any means, but not what anyone would call great numbers for a non-power conference passer, either. Though his tape is filled with a ton of nice plays — like these opposite hash throws below — it’s nothing to rave over.
QB Zach Wilson @BYUfootball has got himself a live arm!
Opposite Hash Throws! 🔥
Opposite Hash Outs, Cover 2 Hole, Vertical Drop in Bucket – you see more impressive throws from Wilson in this BYU offense than from SEC QBs
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) October 22, 2020
Most concerning for many (pre-breakout) Wilson stans was the fact that his air yards per-attempt dropped from 9.2 to 6.9 between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, while his yards-per-attempt dropped from 8.7 to 7.5. Most concerning to me was the fact that Wilson had only one game with 2+ touchdowns (against lowly UMass) and three games with at least two interceptions (against Utah, San Diego State, and Hawaii). As a freshman, Wilson had been incredibly efficient and demonstrated great playmaking abilities, though his sophomore year was filled with more items of concern than moments of excellence.
Any concerns that I had about Wilson were washed away by what I’ve seen from him this season. Despite being surrounded by the same supporting cast from last season — for the most part — Wilson has played with the poise and confidence of a true franchise quarterback. His stat line speaks for itself, as Wilson has completed 73.1% of his passes for 3,274 yards, 38 total touchdowns, and only three interceptions. Any concerns about his air yardage have been put to rest as well, as he’s averaged well over 10 air yards per-attempt — 10.7 to be exact. Wilson’s best version of himself has been realized this season, as he’s learned how to take full advantage of his gifts as a passer.
Another week, another Zach Wilson dime. He's worked his way into the Top-5 QBs for the 2021 NFL Draft at this point. Such a fun player. Great throw outside the numbers here. Nice placement. pic.twitter.com/Q7KnwcdKcK
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) November 1, 2020
Though BYU’s schedule this season has been filled with some suspect opponents — through no fault of their own — Wilson has consistently made throws like this one, that demonstrate his advanced field vision and deep-ball accuracy. Plays like this have been commonplace for BYU’s offense in 2020, as Wilson’s accuracy and arm strength have opened up the playbook a ton for the Cougars.
Zach Wilson just threw a ball over the moon
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 21, 2020
Wilson has also displayed a ton of toughness as a runner, while also demonstrating incredible athleticism on plays like this one below, where he nearly hurdles a Coastal Carolina defender. While he’s not a prolific runner, Wilson is more mobile than Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, both of whom we’ve seen make plays with their legs this season. In the right system, he could be a dangerous dual-threat.
Zach Wilson playing like injuries are turned off
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 6, 2020
Throwing to the sidelines has been a cakewalk for Wilson this season. On this throw below, we see him fit a beautiful throw into a tight window for Dax Milne, placing the ball into a perfect spot behind the defender, allowing Milne to catch and run for a 78-yard score.
Zach Wilson lobs it up for a 78 yard TD pass — the longest of his career 🔥 pic.twitter.com/r0wCTDPNRS
— ESPN (@espn) October 17, 2020
There are some things to criticize from Wilson’s tape this year too. On this play below, he lofts the ball up to his receiver for a touchdown. While it worked this time, the backyard football style of play that led up to this score would not work against an NFL defense. I like that Wilson trusts his receiver, but he should maybe think twice before attempting it again. The Texas State secondary was completely out of place on this play. As I said, confidence is great, but the throw is too risky for my taste.
Perfect 45-yard TD pass from BYU’s Zach Wilson 🔥 pic.twitter.com/w9nlo0dvXW
— ESPN (@espn) October 25, 2020
Here’s one of my favorite plays from Wilson’s tape. It’s yet another throw out of the shotgun, but coming off of the play-action fake, Wilson rifles a fastball 30+ yards downfield into a very tight window for a completion. The field vision and accuracy on this throw are *chef’s kiss*.
Zach Wilson is a first-round pick. pic.twitter.com/oQ3qSPpBO8
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 7, 2020
I’ve heard Wilson compared to Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers quite a bit this season. Plays like this one below will help you understand why these comps are not far off. Wilson is great at throwing on the run, as evidenced here by this deep completion rolling to his right. The touch and ball placement here is just marvelous.
I'm ready to start talking about BYU QB Zach Wilson as a first-rounder pic.twitter.com/9JLHgLYd4o
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) October 5, 2020
As I mentioned earlier, Wilson’s confidence can sometimes trick him into making some poor decisions. Here he throws a deep incompletion to a double-covered receiver. His footwork on the throw is suspect and the likelihood of him completing this pass is far too low to justify it coming out of his hand. In a situation like this, Wilson has to make a different read. In the NFL that’s gonna be a pick-six. That being said, he throws this sucker nearly 50 yards with his feet off the goddamn ground. That’s some Josh Allen type shit right there.
I mean come on just imagine Zach Wilson dropping this dime to Allen Robinson or Mooney or Miller. I guarantee you any of those dudes would actually catch it. pic.twitter.com/gIToKv3k8Z
— Brett Kollmann (@BrettKollmann) November 2, 2020
I feel very good about Wilson as a prospect because he is unafraid to attempt a tough throw when he has to while converting said throws at a reasonably high rate. On this play below, he rolls out and drops in a dart to his receiver for a first down, knowing he’s about to be lit up by a pass-rusher. This clip is not just a testament to Wilson’s toughness, but also a great example of his play creating ability. In some ways, his game mirrors that of an NBA two-guard, as Wilson “creates his own shot” better than any passer I’ve seen in this year’s class.
Wanna see why Zach Wilson is projected as a 1st round pick?
Here's 1 BIG reason.
Unreal throw! pic.twitter.com/OuH3Uaiiq6
— Hans Olsen (@975Hans) December 6, 2020
Saying that Zach Wilson has big balls would be an understatement. He trusts his arm strength as much as any passer I’ve evaluated, but his high-risk style of play has also been startlingly efficient. I’d like to say that Wilson picks his spots wisely, but it’s hard to tell considering the level of play he’s been facing off against. Here’s yet another great deep completion purely for your enjoyment. This throw makes me nervous, but if Wilson can complete these at the NFL level you won’t hear me complain.
Zach Wilson just dropping 50+-yard-in-the-air-throw-your-receiver-open dimes at will now. pic.twitter.com/I2dHyjoWRa
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 7, 2020
Wilson makes difficult throws look easy. The zip that he can generate on a throw to the opposite hash is the stuff that will make NFL scouts fall in love with him.
Zach Wilson casually throwing from the college far hash outside the numbers. Not bad not bad pic.twitter.com/H0wzIM0Av0
— Crocky (@eric_crocker) November 18, 2020
This clip is mostly for fun. Backyard football at its finest.
BYU copyCougars with the fake sprint out flip to fullback screen, called Smoked Sausage by the Chiefs.
Who did it better: Zach Wilson or Patrick Mahomes? pic.twitter.com/gbedl6HVQg
— Danny Schaechter 🦅 (@CoachDShack) October 17, 2020
Wilson’s back shoulder throws are really special. If the Packers could have their Jordan Love selection back, knowing they could get Wilson, I’m fairly confident that they would pull the trigger.
PERFECT BALL by Zach Wilson
400 yards, 4 TD’s, 71% completion pic.twitter.com/e76SLq1MeK
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) October 17, 2020
It really is too easy for Zach this season.
Zach Wilson is insane pic.twitter.com/1SZlv7zWUb
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) November 7, 2020
Okay, that’s enough gushing for now. Wilson isn’t a perfect prospect by any means. BYU’s offense operates almost exclusively out of the shotgun and their offensive line has played incredibly well this season against some rather soft competition. On a team filled with veterans, Wilson hasn’t had many chemistry issues to deal with either. Though I think he’s capable of starting for an NFL team next season, the best course of action could be a redshirt year. Wilson will need to learn the in’s and out’s of an NFL offense, while also getting some coaching on his footwork.
While there are elements of his game that could certainly be ironed out, I’m going to go out a limb and say that Wilson’s ceiling is the highest of any passer in this draft class. He’s got everything a team could want in a modern-day quarterback and all it takes is the right organization to believe in him.