PROVO — A two-quarterback system can be fraught with peril.
But BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall says he is "completely comfortable" with his decision, announced Friday, to start junior Riley Nelson at quarterback for the season-opener on Sept. 4 against Washington and bring freshman Jake Heaps into the game off the bench.
"We plan on playing both Riley and Jake at quarterback and feel both will be effective leading our team," Mendenhall said.
Nelson, known for his running ability, will be under center for the first series and will be listed as the starter. Heaps, a gifted passer, also will be given opportunities to engineer the offense against the Huskies. That's how the Cougars plan to proceed, at least through the first game.
"They're both excellent leaders and they both bring different styles of play," Mendenhall said. "Ultimately, I think we're going to need both quarterbacks to help us reach our goals this year. I think it's the right thing for the young men involved, and it's the right thing for our team."
Mendenhall admitted these plans "could modify after Week 1," he said. "What I told both quarterbacks was, it's based now on how they handle game experience. So the reps could remain dead-even. They could shift one way or another, or it could change by opponent."
The Cougars are committed to playing both QBs, regardless of what those outside the program, including fans, think.
"There will be those who will want a new quarterback the minute the first incomplete pass is thrown, as I very well know will happen," Mendenhall said. "There might even be boos on occasion. But what I've told Riley and Jake and our coaching staff is, they will not deter us from our plan. We'll do what's best for these kids, our program and our future."
Mendenhall explained that Nelson earned the start over Heaps because of "the maturity of life experiences. Not necessarily performance on the field, because that was almost identical in leading our team with Jake. But when you consider now, being the quarterback at BYU, in this community, with these expectations, and the things people say and the things people do, and the exposure that one has, Riley is older. He's served a mission. He's had other life experiences.
"It's a very unique position. I haven't adequately been able to prepare any starting quarterback here for what that's going to be like. Riley is the closest to being ready for that. So, it just made a lot of sense."
Heaps, who will not be allowed to talk to reporters until after the season-opener, said in a statement, "I am 100 percent behind this decision. I feel the coaches have made the right decision for both Riley and I and this football team. Riley is a great player and I'm excited to have the opportunity to contribute. This isn't about me or him. It's about us — it's about doing what we can to help our team."
Nelson characterized his relationship with Heaps as "fantastic." He added, "We have nothing but a positive attitude. The other thing is, we could really care less about whose name gets mentioned in the paper more, whatever. That doesn't matter. It's all about getting the (wins) on Saturday. That's all we care about."
Mendenhall was leery of throwing Heaps, who graduated from high school in December and enrolled at BYU in January, into the fire right away as an opening-game starter. "We're not only looking at this season, we're also looking at the young men's development," he said. "We're also looking at the future of our program. It makes complete sense, looking at all three of those criteria to make the decision that we've made. I'm at complete peace with it."
When Mendenhall met with the two quarterbacks to present the two-quarterback plan, "These two young men looked me right in the eye. There wasn't one ounce of self-interest," the Cougars' head coach said. "It was … 'This is absolutely what we ought to do.' It was just an awesome experience."
Mendenhall declined to explain how the rotation would work.
"I'm not going to be pinned down, nor do I think it's realistic to then predict how that's going to look, other than both will play and both will complement each other," he said. "Both will be used in pretty specific situations. All of those things and blanks to be filled in will happen as we go, after we have some demonstrated performances on the game field."
Offensive coordinator Robert Anae said of the situation, "We have two starters."
There is the old adage that states, "If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one." But that doesn't apply in this case, Mendenhall said. "I think the two that we have would exceed any one that you could have."
Asked his opinion of the two-quarterback system, Nelson said, "Nasty. Lethal. It's going to be really hard to defend. I feel like it's going make defenses take up more time preparing (for two quarterbacks), spreading themselves a little too thin rather than focusing on one aspect of our offense."