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Travis Wilson, now a grizzled veteran, eyeballs big finish

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Quarterback Travis Wilson made his first career start for Utah as a true freshman at the Rose Bowl against UCLA in 2012. He's passed for 311 yards in a game twice. He's also passed for fewer than 60 in a game twice. He's overcome a career-threatening injury. He's reemerged after multiple benchings. He's won 14 games as a starter. With 41 career touchdown passes, he's poised to pass Alex Smith and Brian Johnson to move into second place in Utah's record book.

This year, he will work under his fourth offensive coordinator. In 2013, his good friend, UCLA receiver Nick Pasquale, was killed in a car accident.

Wilson has seen a lot at Utah. Done a lot of living, going from a teenage early enrollee to a 20-something eyeballing what might lie ahead in the real world. He's done a lot of growing up, the fun kind and not-so-fun kind.

His trademark rock-star long hair is gone, donated to breast cancer survivors. He now looks well-coiffed and corporate. Adult. He's measured in interviews because he knows he has to talk about the messy bits in the past as much as the hopeful present -- his best round of spring practices yet -- or the compelling future, where the Utes look like Pac-12 and, perhaps, national contenders.

Consider the 2014 season, a breakthrough for the program but also a challenging one for Wilson. At one point, he looked done, benched in favor of Oklahoma transfer Kendal Thompson, who proceeded to lead the Utes to an upset win at No. 8 UCLA. He and Thompson ended up going back-and-forth for the starting job until a season-ending injury to Thompson made Wilson the man by default.

"Last year was definitely frustrating at times, starting and then getting taken out, then going back-and-forth," Wilson said. "But I always had a positive head on and I always thought in my head that I would get another opportunity, so I had to be ready. Each week, I never treated it any differently, whether I was or wasn't starting."

Coach Kyle Whittingham said Wilson is playing "his best football right now," and there is no question Wilson has improved as a passer and game manager in his three seasons. His touchdown-to-interception ratio was nearly one-to-one his first two seasons, but he threw just five picks with 18 TDs in 2014. His total QBR, ESPN.com's metric for measuring the overall effectiveness of a quarterback, improved from 45.9 in 2012 to 56.1 in 2013 to 63.6 last season, with 50 being average.

A modest 10 percent improvement in 2015 would rank Wilson among the nation's top 25 QBs, based on last season's numbers, within shouting distance of TCU's Trevone Boykin and Mississippi State's Dak Prescott, who are being touted as Heisman Trophy candidates.

Yet Utah coaches, just after praising Wilson, will guarantee him nothing.

"He's going to be tough to unseat this fall but nothing is set in stone," Whittingham said. "Kendal Thompson is a talent. He'll get his chance in the fall to show what he can do. I think competition is a healthy thing."

Whittingham then added, "Right now, Travis is our guy, but he's got to continue to play at a high level in order to keep his job."

That Wilson is working with a new offensive coordinator actually works out in his favor this go-around. For one, despite a few tweaks, the scheme and terminology will remain the same for the first time in Wilson's career. Second, it's pretty clear Wilson never clicked with offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, who bolted after a single season for Texas A&M. The general feeling among program kibitzers, though never explicitly stated by the coaching staff, is Christensen favored Thompson while Whittingham and quarterbacks coach Aaron Roderick preferred Wilson.

Roderick is now the co-offensive coordinator with Jim Harding.

"I was definitely shocked to see [Christensen] leave but I'm definitely happy with the coaches that are offensive coordinators here now, especially Aaron Roderick," Wilson said. "He was the one who recruited me. We have a good relationship."

That's seemingly good for Wilson's prospects, but still no one is ready to write off Thompson, who's particularly adept running the option. Yes, it is possible both will play next season. Harding, for one, sees this as a glass half-full problem.

"Wouldn't you like to have a team with two quarterbacks who won big games last year?" he said. "I think most coaches would like to have a couple of quarterbacks who have won big games."

That's the optimist's take on the pessimistic football adage, "If you have two starting quarterbacks, you actually have none."

Wilson has won big games and lost a few, too. He's taken some hard licks, on and off the field. He enters his final act at Utah looking to parlay those experiences into a big finish, one that might include a Pac-12 South Division title.