Travis Wilson stood tall as a hero following Utah’s 62-20 rout of Oregon last week. The victory was the marquee outing in the Utes’ young Pac-12 tenure, and the signature performance of Wilson’s career.
He finished with four passing touchdowns, a fifth score on the ground and 100 yards rushing.
“Confidence, in a word,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said is propelling the Utah senior. “He’s playing with more confidence and poise right now than at any point since he joined our program.”
It certainly hasn’t been easy. Utah quarterbacks, including Wilson, haven’t had the best of luck over the last decade.
After Alex Smith led Utah to an undefeated 2004, culminating in the first BCS bowl appearance and win for a non-BCS conference program, Brian Johnson took over. Johnson eventually led Utah to another perfect season, which ended with a Sugar Bowl rout of Alabama.
But from Johnson replacing Smith as a freshman in 2005, to leading the Utes’ undefeated 2008, he dealt with injuries along the way.
Brett Ratliff capably stepped in with Johnson injured at points in 2005 and throughout 2006, a luxury Utah hasn’t really had losing other quarterbacks in more recent years.
Much like the freshman Johnson was heir to Smith, Jordan Wynn earned the starting job in 2009 and showed flashes of stardom, interrupted by recurring injuries.
But whereas Johnson eventually had the chance to put it all together his senior season, Wynn’s injury woes forced him into early retirement just a a few weeks into the 2012 campaign.
Wilson, a celebrated recruit out of Southern California prep powerhouse San Clemente High School, made his first start on Oct. 13, 2012, at UCLA.
The Southern California product went 23-of-33 in a hotly contested Utah loss and threw an interception, but he demonstrated all the tools necessary to be a superstar passer in the vein of Smith with the athletic playmaking of Johnson.
That was before the injury bug apparently native to the Beehive State bit Wilson, as well.
He’s dealt with all manner of maladies in his Utah career: a badly hurt finger on his throwing hand; a concussion; a shoulder injury.
The rash of wounds meant splitting time with Jon Hays and Adam Schulz in 2012 and 2013.
Following a vicious hit sustained against Arizona State in 2013, doctors performing concussion tests found a preexisting intracranial artery injury that threatened his career.
Much like his predecessor Wynn, Wilson faced the very real possibility of having to retire while still in college.
With his career in doubt, Utah took on Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson in the winter of 2014. Thompson’s been a crucial addition, pitching in Saturday with a rushing touchdown out of a goal-line package.
Thompson is a capable reserve and gives Wilson a tag-team partner of sorts. But there’s no mistake to be made after Saturday: This is Wilson’s team.
“[Wilson] has complete command of the offense,” Whittingham said. “You could see it starting at the end of last season.”
Last season, Wilson was benched briefly not for injury, but for performance. Thompson relieved Wilson in Utah’s marquee win at UCLA, and the two split quarterbacking duties throughout the season.
But by the end of 2014, Wilson stepped up. He was Most Valuable Player of Utah’s Las Vegas Bowl romp over Colorado State and according to Whittingham, is riding that success into 2015.
“He really carried that same confidence and poise into this year, and he’s playing exceptional,” Whittingham said. “He’s the No. 1 rated quarterback as far as the QBR ESPN puts out. What more could you want from a quarterback?”