Several times last season, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson toed the line between excellent and erratic. He was outstanding in wins over BYU and Stanford, yet inconsistent in losses to Oregon State and UCLA. But the constant that never wavered was his confidence. He played fearless.
Even now, after staring down a head injury that forced him to miss the final three games of 2013 -- and potentially threaten his career -- Wilson is back at practice with that same mentality.
“I’m going to keep on playing how I’ve been playing,” Wilson said. “If I need to tuck and run, I’m going to tuck and run. And if I need to take a hit to get a couple of extra yards, then I’m going to do that. There’s not going to be any hesitation to run or fight for extra yards. I’m going to do whatever I can and keep on playing how I’ve been playing.”
Wilson’s return to full-contact football isn’t guaranteed. For now, he’s taking reps in non-contact situations. He’s due for another scan in July to monitor the intracranial artery trauma that shortened his 2013.
He’s not shy talking about the injury, nor does he duck the fact that the idea of never playing football again crept into his earholes.
“There was a lot of doubt,” he said. “Hearing after our first appointment, the doctor recommended I not play. That was going through my mind the last few months. But he said if we do another scan and it looks stable, there’s a chance you could come back and play. Both scenarios were going through my mind ... I was definitely scared. I definitely felt sick to my stomach and didn’t know what to do at one point. It was hard to hear my career might be over. It was a tough time to go through.”
Right now, it seems like the optimal scenario -- a healthy Wilson -- is winning out.
Head coach Kyle Whittingham described Wilson’s first day at practice on Tuesday as “rusty”, which is fair. Wilson hasn’t done much football activity the last few months. He said he’s been working out on his own keeping his cardio up, but hasn’t done much lifting, so he’s looking forward to getting back in the weight room and adding some pounds to his 6-foot-7 frame.
“It’s been a struggle for him this offseason, not being a part of a lot of the things we were doing,” Whittingham told reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “But he’s back now. He’s not cleared 100 percent. But hopefully that’s the next step.”
Potentially complicating Wilson's return is a slew of quarterbacks behind him. Adam Schulz, who started in place of Wilson when he was injured last season, is listed on the initial depth chart as the No. 2 quarterback behind Wilson. But it’s all fluid, with Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson set to arrive in the fall and redshirt freshman Conner Manning making a push.
For all intents and purposes, Wilson has to be considered the frontrunner if his health holds up simply based on his experience. He'll be working with his third offensive coordinator in three seasons though, with former Wyoming coach Dave Christensen coming in to run the offense.
Still, it’s hard not to be encouraged by Wilson’s can-do attitude and the potential he showed last season when he was at his best. A hand injury suffered against Stanford was actually the beginning of Wilson’s 2013 downfall. Though he played through the pain and helped Utah gut out one of the biggest conference wins in school history, he wasn’t the same after shocking the Cardinal 27-21 at Rice-Eccles.
Through the first six games, Wilson was completing almost 62 percent of his throws with 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions -- six of which came in one game. He also rushed for 293 yards and five touchdowns.
Post-Stanford, however, those numbers free fell to a 31 percent completion percentage with just three touchdowns to six interceptions over the next three games. He was shut down following a 20-19 loss to ASU.
But now Wilson is back with his trademark confidence. He’s pretty sure he’ll be cleared for full contact. Why else would he be out there if they didn’t think he could play? Though never one to take football for granted, he holds his newest opportunity in even higher regard than he did previously.
“I was definitely blessed with another opportunity to play football,” Wilson said. “I don’t ever want to take this for granted. I just want to finish out my career at Utah strong and hopefully that will lead to better things in the future.”