PROVO — There has been no official announcement, but there are strong indications that BYU’s Zach Wilson is on the verge of becoming the seventh true freshman quarterback in school history to start a game when the Cougars host Hawaii Saturday (8:15, p.m., MDT, ESPN2) for homecoming at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Wilson would replace senior Tanner Mangum, who has started every game this season.
After Wednesday's practice, in the face of mounting speculation, offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes acknowledged "there is a possibility that Zach could start," uncharacteristically addressing the QB situation before fielding questions from reporters.
Coach Kalani Sitake said Monday that he would be evaluating every position, including quarterback, and hinted at personnel changes. Wilson and Mangum were not made available to the media this week.
And there was Wilson's striking performance late in last week's Utah State game.
Six true freshmen quarterbacks — including Mangum — have started at least one game in BYU history, and Wilson is expected to become No. 7. According to BYU stats guru Ralph Sokolowsky, Wilson, at 19 years and 2 months, would become the youngest quarterback ever to start for the Cougars.
Wilson and Mangum competed for the starting job during fall camp and a week before the opener at Arizona, Mangum was named the starter.
A few months ago, Wilson was asked about the QB battle and the possibility of becoming a starter this season.
“I’m sure every quarterback thinks they can start,” Wilson said. “I know the coaches are going to make a good decision. You’ve got to have that confidence in yourself. And I completely believe I can start here at BYU and have a successful season, too.”
The six true freshmen to start for BYU are Drew Miller (1997), John Beck (2003), Jake Heaps (2010), Taysom Hill (2012), Mangum (2015) and Joe Critchlow (2017).
While Miller, Beck and Heaps each lost their debuts as starters, Hill (47-0 against Hawaii), Mangum (35-24 against Boise State) and Critchlow (31-21 at UNLV) each won theirs.
Beck, who spent time working with Wilson last summer, has had high praise for the Corner Canyon High product.
“He’s a young quarterback with a lot of potential. That’s awesome to see those guys at BYU,” Beck said before the season began. “Now you hope things can play out well for him. You don’t want to see a young kid thrown into a really bad situation. Putting a young player in a bad situation, that’s when you have got to be super resilient as a player in those situations.”
The Cougars' offense has struggled the past two weeks and is looking for a jolt from Wilson and his dual-threat abilities.
With 3:46 remaining in BYU’s 45-20 loss to Utah State last week, Wilson entered the game and engineered a six-play, 77-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by his 26-yard scramble and capped by his 18-yard TD pass to freshman Gunner Romney. Wilson’s only other collegiate experience came late in the McNeese State game on Sept. 22.
“I thought he brought a little spark with his athleticism and he showed some good composure,” quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick said of Wilson’s showing against USU. “He went out there and did what he did in practice. In fairness to Tanner, that was a lot less pressure on Zach in that situation than some of the games Tanner’s played in this year. We’ve had a tough schedule. We’ve been in some tough games. A lot of respect for how Tanner’s battled this year.”
Of course, BYU’s offensive woes in recent weeks can’t all be pinned on Mangum. There have been penalties, turnovers and dropped passes.
“We have not executed the way that we did earlier (this season),” Grimes said. “We need to sustain drives. The biggest thing we need to improve? We need to improve on third down. We converted one third down the other night. If we don’t convert on third down, it makes it hard.”
BYU has been outscored this season 38-7 in the first quarter. Grimes is looking for his team to come out stronger.
“It is important. We’ve addressed that. One thing we’ve done this week is, the standard practice model is that you stretch, then you do individual drills then you go group drills and then you get to your team drills,” he said. “One of the things Kalani had us do this week is start right off with team drills, one that pitted our (first team) offense against our (first team) defense. Hopefully, that makes a difference. It at least sends the message that starting fast is important.”
One reason why this might be the right time for Wilson to make his debut as a starter — Hawaii (6-1) ranks No. 88 nationally in total defense, No. 98 in pass defense, No. 114 in pass efficiency defense, No. 66 in rushing defense, and No. 86 in scoring defense.29 comments on this story
But Grimes respects the Rainbow Warriors’ abilities on that side of the ball.
“I think they’re going to come in here and play really hard. They’ve got a group of guys that play the game the way it’s meant to be played,” he said. “They play hard. They run to the football. They play with passion and aggression on defense. I suspect it will be another really good challenge for us.”
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Cougars on the air
Hawaii (6-1) at BYU (3-3)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM