Quarterback Travis Wilson took one big step on a long comeback trail Monday when the Utah athletic department's official Twitter account confirmed he was medically cleared for non-contact spring practices.
A full comeback from an intracranial artery injury is no guarantee. His reevaluation this summer is the next major hurdle for Wilson to clear before reclaiming the Utes' starting quarterback job—a position that has been continuously vexing for Utah since 2009.
In Utah's golden age—2004 through 2008—quarterback play was a program hallmark. Alex Smith gunned his way to 2,952 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2004, earning Utah an undefeated season and the No. 1 overall selection in the following spring's NFL draft.
His successor, Brian Johnson, led Utah to another undefeated season in 2008, which he capped with a masterpiece performance in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Since Johnson's departure, injuries have turned Utah's quarterback position into a game of musical chairs. Terrance Cain and Jordan Wynn alternated duties in 2009 and 2010, then Wynn and Jon Hays in 2011.
Chronic shoulder problems forced Wynn into retirement during the 2012 season, eventually resulting in Wilson's entry into the starting lineup as a freshman. After four years of instability, the promising Wilson looked like the solution.
Still only a sophomore in 2013, Wilson faced struggles before his season ended. He threw as many interceptions (16) as touchdown passes and had completion percentages of 35.7 and 28.6 in his final two appearances.
But he also showed more confidence and a high ceiling, combining impressive arm strength with surprising explosiveness on the run.
Wilson proved adept at tucking the ball and using his long frame to roll off big yards, similar to Arizona State's former quarterback Brock Osweiler. A 142-yard, three-touchdown performance on the ground against Oregon State provided a sample.
And while the young Wilson had room to improve, his approach put him on course to reach his potential and become the star quarterback Utah needs to thrive in the Pac-12. Head coach Kyle Whittingham's assessment of Wilson following a tough 34-27 loss to UCLA on Oct. 3, 2013, sheds light on the quarterback's mental makeup.
"[H]e’s a tough kid. He’ll come back and be ready to compete next week against Stanford," Whittingham said in the postgame press conference, per UtahUtes.com.
Wilson threw six interceptions that night, some of which took fluky bounces, but he returned with a stellar effort that sealed Utah's most significant win since joining the Pac-12 in 2011.
Wilson completed 23 of 34 passes and two touchdowns against fifth-ranked Stanford, taking the best defense in the conference by surprise early en route to a 27-21 victory.
Utah stood at 4-2, earning votes in the subsequent Associated Press Top 25 Poll and looking very much like a surprise challenger in the Pac-12 South. Losing Wilson had a profound impact on the ensuing losing skid that doomed the Utes' campaign.
"There's something to be said about not losing your quarterback," Whittingham said on a November 2013 teleconference call. "That's what [the five-game losing streak] was all about...We went into a slide at that point and were never able to recover."
A finger injury in the first half against Arizona the next week derailed Wilson's progress, and the concussion sustained against Arizona State cast a pall not only on the 2013 season, but also Utah's bigger picture outlook heading into a pivotal season.
With back-to-back 5-7 finishes and finishing out of the bowl picture in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997 and 1998, the Utes need a strong 2014.
Wilson's long-term health is far more important than the possibility of Utah reaching a bowl game, and no one understands that more than Whittingham. Adam Schulz, Wilson's reserve in 2013, and redshirt freshmen Conner Manning and Brandon Cox will all get repetitions in spring practice, as new Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen must prepare for the possibility of Wilson being unavailable.
But this first positive step could be the starting point to a great comeback story for one of the nation's most underrated quarterbacks. It might also be the some much-needed good fortune for a program that has had more than its share of bad quarterback news.