PROVO — With just six days remaining until BYU kicks off the 2010 season at home against Washington, junior quarterback Riley Nelson is trying hard not to think about it.
That's because when Nelson conjures up thoughts of game day, he can't relax.
"My heart gets pounding and the adrenaline gets going and I can't sleep at night out of sheer excitement," said Nelson, who will make his first start for the Cougars on Saturday. "There are really no feelings of nervousness or anxiety. It's just an excitement. It's like, 'Fall's here, it's football season. Let's go play.' Those thoughts creep into my mind but I'm telling you, I break out in sweats. It's getting close and it's going to be real fun."
Nelson will share snaps with freshman Jake Heaps as part of BYU's two-quarterback attack.
Last spring, Nelson, a Utah State transfer, told reporters that being the starting QB at BYU "is definitely my goal ... that I've had since I was a little kid."
Last Friday morning, Nelson learned about receiving the starting nod. His reaction to the good news was tempered by the realization that there's still plenty of work that needs to be done before the Huskies roll into town.
"There was no big epiphany. It was, 'Let's win some ball games,' " Nelson said. "Jake and I are still sharing reps in practice. We're both preparing, we're both going to contribute to the team. It's about helping the team win. It doesn't matter who starts, not just at quarterback — at any position. The prevailing attitude of the team is a denial of self and a willingness to help the team."
As it turns out, Nelson's debut as BYU's starting QB will be in front of eight former Cougar All-American quarterbacks — including Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer and Steve Sarkisian (who is Washington's coach) — as part of the school's "Y. Quarterback Weekend."
"That's going to be a real special opportunity. We're definitely cognizant that they'll be here," Nelson said. "Any opportunity we get to rub elbows with them or hear some counsel or advice, I'm definitely going to have a pen and pad handy, because that's a lot of football greatness there."
Any extra pressure knowing these eminent BYU QBs will be in attendance at LaVell Edwards Stadium?
"I don't think it's pressure. It's one more thing to help you elevate your game. They've already passed through, they've already had their success and they've already left their mark on this university. Now it's time for us to go out and leave our mark."
For Nelson — who started eight games at USU as a true freshman in 2006 before leaving for a mission — there's nothing like playing at Edwards Stadium. "There's really no words to describe what it's like coming out of that tunnel, seeing all of our fans screaming, and then the energy at kickoff," he said.
One of the team's goals, Nelson said, is to win its home games. Both of the Cougars' losses last season came at home, against Florida State and TCU. BYU fell by a combined score of 92-35.
"We lost two games at home after not losing at home for three years," Nelson said. "We want to get back to that home winning streak and the tradition that has been maintained for years — and that's not losing at LaVell Edwards Stadium. It was a point of emphasis for us last year, but we took it a little for granted. Teams come in knowing they're coming into a tough environment. But the environment doesn't win the game for you. You've got to go out and execute. Maybe last year we learned a lesson about that."
Nelson knows what it's like to be on the other sideline at Edwards Stadium. He was a visiting player with Utah State in 2006, though didn't play in the Aggies' 38-0 setback to BYU.
"All I remember about coming in here in '06 was everyone was so nice," Nelson said. "They were like, 'Welcome to LaVell Edwards Stadium, home of the Cougars.' Everyone was telling us what a good job we did and thanked us for coming. It was like, what is this? It was the opposite of a hostile environment. But it's still kind of a hostile environment because there are 65,000 fans screaming and raining down on you. It's definitely a lot of different to have all of those people cheering for you."
STARTING JOBS: One of the most heated position battles during fall camp was at inside linebacker.
On Saturday, coach Bronco Mendenhall said if the season were to start Monday, senior Shane Hunter would start at "mike" linebacker while junior Aveni Leung-Wai would get the start at "buck" linebacker.
"(Freshman) Zac Stout would be the backup at mike and right now it's dead-even between Brandon Ogletree and Austen Jorgensen for the backup at the buck spot," Mendenhall said, adding that all five linebackers are expected to see playing time "in the first couple of games."
SLIP SLIDIN' AWAY: After Saturday's practice, the Cougars participated in their traditional slip-n-slide ritual, with players and coaches sliding down a water-soaked piece of plastic tarp. "It was fun," said Mendenhall, who said he slid six or seven times.
"My performance increased each time," he deadpanned. "I mastered my technique."
INJURY UPDATE: The Cougars are as healthy as they've ever been at this point under Mendenhall. "This ties the all-time fewest injuries (during fall camp)," he said. "That's always positive. We're in great shape right now."
One of the few injured players, tight end Devin Mahina, who's nursing a sprained ankle, is expected to play against Washington.