Salt Lake City — All Travis Wilson wants is for doubters, including his own coaches, to have a little faith in him. He’s looking forward to a big senior year, which is a lot better than looking out the earhole of his helmet, wondering, after concerns raised by doctors, if he’ll ever be able to play football again.
The Utah quarterback’s famously been down that road, as part of a sojourn that stands out as much for its vicissitudes as it does for its inconsistency. Wilson’s been up, been down, been all around. He’s been a starter, been benched, been hurt, been healthy. He’s looked ahead to a brighter day, he’s plumbed the depths when he wasn’t sure he could trust his own mind and body. He’s felt strong, felt weak. He’s been put in positions to succeed and been betrayed by his coaches, cut back to the roots, told not to go out and win games, rather to go out and not screw things up. He’s been a hero, he’s been a goat, and we’re not talking about the greatest of all time. He’s never been that.
Regardless of all of it, he’s convinced of one thing: He can play quarterback at Utah and is expecting to do that better during his final year than he’s ever done it before.
Lord knows, the Utes want that, too.
They need it. They need a quarterback who can make good decisions, complete clutch passes, avoid senseless turnovers, and put pressure on opponents to defend the entire field while taking pressure off a run game so centered on Devontae Booker. They need a QB who will punish defenses for cheating, for loading up the box with eight, nine, 10 defenders.
That’s exactly what Wilson plans on doing, starting next Thursday in the season opener against Michigan.
“I’m looking forward to having a great season,” he says. “I want to finish out my last year on a good note, finish out strong. I’ve just got to make sure I execute what is called and perform well each week.”
OK, so Wilson didn’t quite drop the mic there. Nobody will ever get that from him. He’s neither outspoken, nor prone to bold, declarative statements. He’s more a big cat you can paw around. Still, he’s pretty certain, deep down somewhere, that he can guide the Utah offense to something more than a timid, quiet diversion taking up time and space when the defense and special teams aren’t on the field doing signature dramatic stuff, helping the Utes win. He sees himself as more than a plumber unclogging drains and patching up leaks.
“I hope I will be able to show more and be able to get more opportunities,” he says. “But I just have to make sure that each week I’m playing consistent football.”
The Utes will take that and like it.
Co-offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick says the Utes’ attack needs a few minor adjustments to see a large advance in effectiveness. It needs its quarterback to complete passes maybe at a 5-percentage-point-higher clip than he did last season, when the offense finished dead last in Pac-12 passing. Just enough to keep important drives alive and eliminate short possessions that go nowhere.
“We aren’t going to play scared,” Roderick says. “You’ve got to be able to throw it.”
He says he’s a believer, convinced Wilson, or some combination of Wilson and Kendal Thompson, another senior, can do precisely that because, having worked closely with them, having taught and evaluated them, they’ve got the wherewithal, the mindset, to get it properly handled.
“Travis is a pretty tough man,” says Roderick. “He’s been through a lot. He’s been through some rough times here. He’s been through an injury, sometimes not playing well, sometimes playing great. Some people like him, some people don’t. He’s just a tough dude. He’s a great competitor, really a grounded guy who never gets too high or too low. He competes hard and wants to win. He doesn’t need to be babied or anything like that. He’s not fragile.”
At least not psychologically.
Last season, everyone cringed nearly every time Wilson took a hit, given his intracranial condition that doctors discovered, studied and monitored following a concussion near the end of his sophomore year and through subsequent months. It appeared at one point those doctors might block him from ever putting a hat and pads on again. Standing at that crossroads pulled sudden maturity and introspection from a guy who had made football a singular pursuit.
“I tried to stay positive,” he said at that time. “I believe everything happens for a reason. I thought something good would come of it. And I felt like I’d grown through the process, that I’d gotten stronger as a person. I played both scenarios in my mind. If I could come back and play, I’d do everything I could to be the best player I could be. If not, there’d be a different plan for me. I had to face both sides of that.”
So said the laidback beach kid from San Clemente who, apparently, was much more than what he seemed. One thing that was reinforced as he fought that fight and eventually was cleared to play: He is completely committed to the game. Last season’s showing, when he started and struggled, then sat and later started again, when he worked as a quarterback field hand more than as any kind of luminary, demonstrated major resolve. Even as coaches settled on a conservative defense/special teams/field position approach, Wilson straight won the USC game on the Utes’ final drive and was named the Vegas Bowl’s MVP, throwing for one touchdown and running for three more.
He wasn’t great, but he was the best Utah had.
“He’s been underappreciated here,” Roderick says. “He’s a good player.”
Informed of the coordinator’s comment, Wilson gives it a nod.
If the quarterback was uncomfortable with former OC Dave Christensen last time around, a conclusion that’s easy to draw even though Wilson never comes right out and says it, he’s fully at ease with Roderick, who doubles as the Utes’ quarterbacks coach.
“We have a great relationship,” Wilson says. “He was the one who recruited me to Utah, so we have been very close. He really looks after me and takes care of me and is always making sure I’m doing well. He’s a great coach and a great person, as well.”
Considering what’s gone by and looking ahead to whatever comes next, the quarterback says: “Last year, I did a great job of taking care of the football. That was one of my struggles early in my college career. Now, I have to take advantage of the big shots when they are there but also be smart with the football. I have more confidence in the offense and in myself. I just want to win every game and make the coaches have faith in me. That’s it, I really want to make them have faith that I can get the job done.”