When it comes to recognizing an excellent student, the Jets coaching staff and particularly offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur think they might have a good one on their hands in rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.
"Sometimes coaches talk to these players and [they think], 'Coach said it, I'm going to do it.' He's thinking about it," LaFleur said this spring, referring to Wilson. "He's not just thinking about it when he's in the building, he's thinking about it when he's back at the [hotel], just sitting away from the facility, he's trying to process all this kind of stuff and it's pretty cool to watch."
In a literal sense, LaFleur said that he can see and feel the wheels turning inside Wilson's nimble mind, a QB brain that is ravenous when it comes to consuming schemes, film analysis and anything having to do with the game.
"I've always looked at film like my time away from football, honestly," Wilson said as the Jets were wrapping up their mandatory minicamp at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. "I feel like that's when you can rest your legs a little bit and hang out. I'm not saying I work extremely hard, there's always someone working harder than you. I don't love feeling unprepared, I don't love feeling like I'm not ready for something. I love that, always having something new feeling every day in practice. You don't know what defense they're going to throw at you and there's always something new to prepare for and get better at. I'm just going to make sure I'm doing everything I can to be ready once training camp comes around."
Wilson was impressive during minicamp and the voluntary OTAs that preceded the mandatory period. He has adjusted well to both scripted and unscripted periods on the field -- albeit without pads, finding a quick connection to fellow rookie Elijah Moore, a promising receiver, veteran Braxton Berrios and free agents Keelan Cole and Corey Davis, and others.
"It's been a learning curve for him," LaFleur said. "We've thrown a lot at him. We had a plan, we go through an installation schedule; you get your two minute, you get your situational football. I thought these last two weeks have been awesome for him. We've done so many 'call it' periods where you know he doesn't have the script and he just has to hear me through the walkie-talkie and make sure not only is he calling it correctly, but getting everyone else aligned as part of the quarterback's job.
"And when you're basically in your third week of just calling plays within this offense and an 11-on-11 situation, I thought he did a really good job with that. He put so much time into it. You know, it's funny because you get asked the question, 'How is his day to day?' Well, we look at it kind of like play to play. I don't even know how his days go half the time, I'm just like 'How was he on that play?' Because each play is its own story. And just because it's one concept, he might have that concept three times in a day against the same coverage, but because it's different guys in different alignments it's a whole different world to him and to see it all in that space and stuff, so it's cool because he recognizes all that, he learns, and he's eager."
Wilson knows he's being confronted by a stiff learning curve. He, head coach Robert Saleh and LaFleur all have mentioned that Wilson played in a similar offensive scheme in college at BYU. That familiarity gives Wilson a sense of comfort, but even a film junkie will face challenges.
"I feel I can improve every single day, I feel like I'm learning something every single day," Wilson said. "Even on the good days, it's still frustrating, and it's just because it's like a foreign language, every single day it's the same plays but you're getting different reps, different looks at it, different defensive coverages, whatever it is."
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Between now and the start of training camp, Wilson said that he hopes to convene informal practice sessions with Jets receivers. For LaFleur, Wilson's dedication and thirst for knowledge has been an eyeopener.
"He certainly does not need a pep talk," LaFleur said. "He is so internally motivated to obviously be the best and all that, whatever, but to learn, and that's what's unique. He understands that this whole thing, as I said -- it's kind of cliché -- but each play is its own story and you just hope you can retain as much as you can. These guys are gone for 40 days and it'll be crucial for them, not to just check-out completely, particularly, in the first year, and go back and revisit these practices on their iPads and stuff like that, trying to relive that moment."
The next challenge for Wilson and the Jets will come next month when training camp is scheduled to convene in late July.