Utes freshman QB Wilson adding spark to offense
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Tim Tebow he is not, as no one questions Travis Wilson's ability to throw the ball.
Yet Wilson's gutsy, fearless running style earned him comparisons to the New York Jets backup in the past and has now earned him playing time as a freshman quarterback at Utah, and generated a new nickname - Bulldog.
On his first collegiate snap, the 6-foot-7, 228-pound Wilson jumped over a defender to gain four yards before rumbling in for the score two plays later.
He'd finish the night with two rushing touchdowns, and was 2 for 2 passing in the Utes' 41-0 shutout of Northern Colorado.
While Jordan Wynn remains the starter, head coach Kyle Whittingham said Wilson's effort left no doubt he is the future, and he will continue to see action, including Friday night when the Utes face an improved Utah State team in Logan.
"He's really providing a spark for us,'' Whittingham said of the 18-year-old.
Wilson's coaches back at San Clemente (Calif.) High School aren't surprised.
He doubled as a linebacker in Pop Warner, and knocked an opposing cornerback out of the game in high school when he lowered his shoulder going for the goal line on a QB keeper. A photo proudly displayed in the coaches' office shows players from a rival school colliding with each other while trying to tackle the elusive Wilson.
"The word slide and duck are not in his vocabulary,'' said San Clemente head coach Jaime Ortiz, who has known Wilson since he was 8 and watched him grow 11 inches in three years in high school.
Utah coaches sometimes wish Wilson would play it safer.
Offensive coordinator Brian Johnson, who got an earful from his own coaches when he kept trying a spin move during his playing days at Utah, has preached a little restraint from the talented freshman.
The same QB power run left that set off Twitter feeds last week against Northern Colorado got Wilson creamed during a fall scrimmage.
"It was the same thing. He jumped over the defender, but this time (linebacker) V.J. Fehoko knocked him (flat),'' said Johnson, the nation's youngest offensive coordinator and four years removed from Utah's Sugar Bowl-winning season.
"If you watch his high school highlight tape, he's jumping over people and getting away with it. But at this level, we got to calm that down a little bit. ... We were doing that, but in the game I guess old habits die hard.''
Wilson acknowledges as much. But that killer instinct has served him well.
It did when he was persuaded to go out for the volleyball team in high school, despite never having played except for those days on the beach five minutes from home. He went on to become first-team all-South Coast League as a sophomore.
It helped that he had a 36-inch vertical jump, an aggressive style and leadership. When the match was on the line, it was an easy decision.
"We were going to Travis,'' said Ken Goldstone, San Clemente's volleyball coach and a defensive assistant on the football team. "If we got a good pass and could set in the middle, he was going to put the ball away. He's really a dynamic player. And he wanted the ball in that situation.''
The same was true on the football field.
As a senior, he passed for 2,289 yards and 24 touchdowns, and rushed for 467 yards and nine scores, leading San Clemente to the state championship game and a 12-2 record.
Wilson graduated early and waged a spirited battle for the starting job in Utah's spring and fall camps, pushing Wynn along the way.
He said then that he felt comfortable if asked to start, but backs the coaches' decision to go with Wynn, who is now 14-6 as a starter despite a pair of season-ending shoulder injuries.
"He's a great quarterback, he's been here and he's won games for them,'' Wilson said of the junior, who started slow last week but finished 19 of 27 for 200 yards, with two TDs and one interception. "I totally understand that. I know I have to wait my turn, but it's not a reason to take a year off. I'm still working and still trying to get better.''
Rather than pulling the QBs apart, Wilson said the competition has only brought them closer.
"Maybe people wouldn't think that we're as close because of (Wynn) starting, but our whole group is super-close,'' Wilson said. "We compete with each other, but we're also there to push each other and help each other out.''
Though he hesitated at first to reveal the nickname the other QBs hung on him, Wilson now embraces it.
He should, said Johnson, who helped convince Wilson to choose Utah over UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona, Washington, SMU and Iowa State in part because of a recruiting visit to one of his volleyball matches.
"It's awesome,'' Johnson said of the Bulldog nickname. "I think it fits him very well.''
Of course, Wilson didn't mind the Tebow tag in high school. "He's a great guy and when he runs the ball, sometimes he's unstoppable. That's fascinating to watch,'' Wilson said of Tebow.
But does Wilson have a better arm than Tebow?
"No doubt,'' he said without hesitation after practice Tuesday. "But he's a great quarterback. He made it to the NFL.''
Wilson simply will be trying to get through his second college game.
He already has a legion of fans and teammates behind him.
"Any time a player can make plays like that, it's electrifying,'' said wide receiver Luke Matthews.
"A lot of guys wouldn't try to hurdle guys, especially a (quarterback) who is 6-7,'' added defensive end Joe Kruger. "He's fearless and will do whatever it takes for our team.''
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