PROVO — BYU junior quarterback Riley Nelson was the first to emerge from the locker room Monday, jogging alone onto the practice field for the first day of spring practice.
As one of three contenders, along with sophomore James Lark and true freshman Jake Heaps, vying to become the next Cougar QB, Nelson wants to be the one to emerge — as the starter — when BYU opens the 2010 season Sept. 4 against Washington.
"That's definitely my goal," said Nelson, who was three-year starter Max Hall's backup last season. "I wish to accomplish it. But not all my eggs are in that basket. If the chips don't fall in my favor, I've got to keep working and waiting for the next opportunity. This is opportunity number one to accomplish a goal that I've had since I was a little kid, and I plan to take full advantage of it."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged that all three quarterbacks have a lot to learn, but, he added, "In terms of talent, all three are very skilled and bring something special. One day is hard to assess other than they all have the skills necessary to lead the team. We'll see how it plays out."
Mendenhall reiterated Monday that this quarterback battle could last until fall camp.
During 11-on-11 drills, Nelson, who took reps with the first-team based on his knowledge of the offense, completed 5 of 7 passes for 33 yards. Lark, who returned home in December from a mission to Russia, finished 0-for-3, including an interception by cornerback Robbie Buckner.
And in his first official practice as a Cougar, Heaps, a highly touted prep star who graduated from high school early so he could enroll in classes at BYU in January, was 4-for-8 for 25 yards, including a 16-yard pass to wide receiver Marcus Mathews.
Both Nelson and Lark say the quarterbacks are enjoying the competition.
"We all have different strengths, which is really good for this team," said Lark, who prepped at Pine View High. "We have a good team. We're excited and working hard."
"Day One went really well. First and foremost, it was fun to come out, run around and play football," said Nelson, a Logan High product. "I feel really excited and enthused about how we performed as a team. It was a little bit of ebb and flow today with the offense and defense, which is what you want to see. We've got a bunch of athletes on defense and a bunch of talented guys on offense. It was real fun to get out and play some spring ball. ... Everyone is trying to show what they can do. That's the objective right now."
As per BYU policy, reporters were not allowed to talk to any newcomers to the program, like Heaps.
While Heaps garnered plenty of attention as he took his first snaps as a Cougar on Monday, another true freshman, running back Josh Quezada, turned in an impressive performance. He rushed three times for 53 yards and raced 36 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the practice, which lasted nearly two hours.
"Josh Quezada has nice speed, nice awareness, very good maturity, good strength and good quickness," said Mendenhall. "We'd seen that through the off-season workouts. But as you watched today, you saw a couple of true freshmen — Jake Heaps, Josh Quezada and even (linebacker) Kyle Van Noy — that didn't look intimidated, nor were they out of place on day No. 1."
Mendenhall liked returning to practice, a few months after his team posted an 11-2 record and No. 12 national ranking.
"It's fun to be back out. There's a lot of new faces," he said. "They're eager to play football, eager to learn, eager to compete. So there's a freshness with this team, with the amount of new faces, which is fun. I'm encouraged after the first day."
EXTRA POINTS: Wide receiver O'Neill Chambers did not participate in Monday's practice so he could catch up on his academic work. He could be out the entire week and, if he completes his coursework, he could join practices next week, Mendenhall said. ... Cornerbacks Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley turned in solid pass break-ups during drills. ... Sophomore placekicker Riley Stephenson hit a 29-yard field goal during "blue zone" drills. ... Sophomore running back Malosi Te'o scored a two-yard TD on a handoff from Heaps during blue zone work. ... Practices will continue today, Thursday and Friday. Practices are closed to the public.
BYU-Utah State will be on ESPN96 comments on this story
When BYU and Utah State square off on Oct. 1 in Logan, the two in-state schools will play before a national television audience.
Monday, the Western Athletic Conference released the ESPN and ESPN2 schedule for the 2010 football season, and, as part of ESPN's contract with the WAC, the Cougar-Aggie contest will be televised by either ESPN or ESPN2. Kickoff time has not been determined.
That game will mark the 80th meeting between the two teams. BYU defeated Utah State last year in Provo, 35-17.