The next test in the education of Zach Wilson arrives Saturday, when he faces another team for the first time.
Yes, it’s only preseason. Yes, the Giants will probably be playing mostly young players. But this is still the next step of the journey for Wilson, the Jets’ rookie quarterback.
“I’m excited, it’s going to be good to prepare, just to get back into a season,” Wilson said this week. “It’s crazy how fast it flies by from college to now, preparing with these guys. I feel like we’re learning a lot and we still got a lot of time to just keep learning. We’re learning now, we got a lot of learning this week and when we see these different opponents, it’s going to be great for us.”
Training camp has been up-and-down for Wilson. He has had some tough days against the Jets defense but had one of his best days of practice on Thursday. The No. 2-overall pick is having a lot thrown at him by the Jets, who have no fallback plan. Unlike the Bears, 49ers, Patriots and even the Jaguars, the Jets have no veteran quarterback to turn to if their first-round draft pick is not ready to play.
That has meant Wilson receiving all of the first-team reps and facing the starting defense for most of those snaps. Last Saturday, Wilson struggled a bit in the team’s scrimmage at MetLife Stadium, throwing two interceptions and failing to lead the team to a touchdown. He was hard on himself afterward and the reports of that performance raised some angst among Jets fans. But coach Robert Saleh said he has not seen any signs of Wilson wilting under the pressure.
“He’s not wavering,” Saleh said. “I’m telling you, he’s in a great space mentally, he’s learning every single day. … He is in such a great place and he loves competing, he loved that red-zone competition period we had going down there [in practice this week], because it challenged him mentally. It forced him to make quick reads and quick decisions because there was a clock on the scoreboard, and the ball had to get up and down. He loves, and he’s taking in all of it. We’re really excited about where he’s at.”
Wilson is one of many young players on the Jets roster expected to play big roles this season. That makes the preseason more important for the Jets than most teams. Some teams have talked about not playing their starters in the exhibition season. The Jets need most of theirs to get as many plays as possible.
Saleh said Wilson and the starters will play about two series or a quarter in Saturday night’s game. Both rookies and second-year players have never played a preseason game because the 2020 preseason was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“We are a very, very young football team and they’ve got to be able to go through the process of pregame and prepping themselves mentally and getting in their own space and getting ready to play a football game and then going out there and playing a couple of drives,” Saleh said. “If you think about it, if you count last year’s group, 30 guys on our roster, somewhere around there, that have never had preseason action. To me, this is a big deal. These moments are priceless, especially for this team.”
The coaches said Wilson is good at tuning out the outside noise. Whatever he does Saturday will surely cause an overreaction, but Wilson knows he can’t pay attention to it.
“I think I really learned it at BYU just because the ups and downs of the journey that come with playing quarterback,” Wilson said. “I understand it’s part of the position and I think there are a lot more pros than there is cons. It doesn’t really tell the story when other people are watching, they don’t understand how detailed and what my reads are, what I’m thinking, what a receiver is doing. They don’t understand any of that stuff and that’s why we keep our circle within us, and we do what we’re supposed to do as far as just learning what we’re supposed to be learning. Just ignoring the outside noise and listening to what my coaches say.”
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