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Silas Walker, Deseret News
Quarterback Zach Wilson (1) stands on the sidelines during BYU's Spring Game at the former Provo High School football field in Provo on Saturday, March 23, 2019.

PROVO — As a true freshman last season, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson earned the starting job midway through the year and capped the campaign with a perfect passing performance in a bowl game victory.

But weeks after the conclusion of the season, Wilson underwent surgery on his throwing shoulder.

During spring practices, which wrapped up last week, Wilson couldn’t take any reps or participate in any drills. He won’t be able to throw for a couple of months, but he expects to be at full strength when the Cougars reconvene in late July for fall camp ahead of their Aug. 29 season-opener against archrival Utah.

Is it possible for Wilson to improve going into his sophomore season despite being sidelined during the spring?

Certainly, practices were more mental than physical for Wilson.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU quarterback Zach Wilson takes the snap in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018. Wilson was forced to sit out spring camp as he recovers from shoulder surgery but is expected to be ready to go when fall camp opens the end of July.

“I’m watching film, not just BYU, but any team,” he said during spring camp. “I’m trying to see how quarterbacks switch certain protections, combination of routes, going through certain progressions and making certain throws. … That’s the biggest part of being a quarterback. You get to this level, it’s not who throws the ball, it’s who understands the game fully.”

Wilson immersed himself in video work and during practices, he took mental reps.

“If you’re taking the rep, that’s the best thing. But if you’re not, being locked in every play, knowing what the play call is and knowing the down and distance and then talking through your assignment to yourself or to the guy next to you,” said quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick. “Zach stands next to me through the whole practice. Every single play call, we’re talking through it. He’s communicating to the receivers and the other position guys. He’s a coach on the field right now.

Silas Walker, Deseret News
Quarterback Zach Wilson (1) stands on the sidelines during BYU's Spring Game at the former Provo High School football field in Provo on Saturday, March 23, 2019.

“Obviously, it would be better if he were playing, but he’s made the most of what he can do every day. He’s such a football junkie that he’s out here coaching guys, talking to me and talking to the other quarterbacks every single play,” Roderick added. “He’s engaged in what’s going on. He’s involved as he can be. There are no worries about his mental preparation at all. He sends me film clips at 11 o’clock at night from the Kansas City Chiefs or somebody that ran a play that he likes. He’s football all the time.”

Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes said Wilson is “just continuing to learn the game, which he is doing a great job of. When we’re in meetings, he’s very engaged, answering a lot of questions, coaching the other guys, which at times is the highest form of learning. One of the things we’ve tried to emphasize this spring is trying to get all of our guys to not only learn but to teach others. He’s done a real good job of that. The mental part of the game is still advancing for him.”

For Wilson though, not being able to participate in practice was difficult.

“It sucks just to watch. Watching film every day, I’m like, ‘Dang, I wish so bad I could be out here playing.’ It is spring ball and it’s still early,” said Wilson, who switched his jersey number from No. 11 to No. 1. “We’ve got time until fall camp. I’m grateful to be out here learning. As a quarterback, I realize now, not being able to practice, everything is mental. Hopefully, I’m improving still.”

Wilson’s shoulder injury resulted due to overuse that carried over from high school.

“Practice was the roughest part (last year). After games, it was super sore. It seemed like it maybe was progressively getting worse. But it didn’t affect me in any way of throwing,” he said. “In a game, I don’t think I ever noticed it once. I never had a throw in a game where I was like, ‘Wow, that hurt my shoulder.’ You had the adrenaline flowing.

“It was mostly practices and throughout the week where it was just taking hits in the games and getting beat up,” he continued. “Then the day after the game, it was hurting. I figured that this is something, even if I could have fought through it now, it’s something I should get fixed now. Better to do it now than down the road.”

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Former BYU quarterback Max Hall hugs a coach during game against Arizona in Tucson on Sunday, Sept. 2, 2018. During the spring scrimmage, Wilson spent time picking Max Hall's brain for insight.

Wilson loves BYU's quarterback tradition and he’s taken advantage of tapping into the minds of past Cougar QB greats. During the spring scrimmage, Wilson spent considerable time chatting with Max Hall, for example. Wilson said he talked a little with Steve Young last year and he’s worked out with John Beck.

During spring, Wilson worked to help out the other quarterbacks, including Jaren Hall, Joe Critchlow and Baylor Romney.

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“They’ve all done a great job. They’ve progressed every day and they’re getting more comfortable with the offense,” Wilson said. “Those guys are progressing every day and they’re all looking good. They’re all great guys and super invested. They want to be good players. It’s good to have that competition in the QB room.”

Wilson is looking forward to being able to throw again and run plays with the rest of the offense. But he has been committed to helping the other quarterbacks and doing all he can to improve as a quarterback.

“For me, I’ve got to mentally stay involved,” he said. “Things start to fall off if you don’t keep up with the signals or the calls or the protections. I’ve got to keep making sure that I’m engaged in every play, just like I was out there.”