PROVO — BYU's Jake Heaps would seem to have a world of pressure on him.
The sophomore quarterback is playing one of the highest-profile positions in college football. He's leading the Cougars into their inaugural game as an independent Saturday at Southeastern Conference foe Ole Miss.
Not only will 60,00-plus fans be looking on at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, but the game will also be televised before a national audience on ESPN.
But this week, Heaps is smiling a lot. He's confident. He's relaxed.
"He's a confident kid," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "He's prepared hard. He's had a good fall camp. He should be confident. He should be relaxed. He thinks he was born to play this game. He's not nervous about it."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall was in his office Monday night and had an impromptu conversation with Heaps about all that has transpired in the past year.
A year ago, Heaps was a highly acclaimed true freshman battling for the starting job with Riley Nelson. The two QBs shared snaps until Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Florida State.
Heaps took over from there, making costly mistakes at times, and showing flashes of brilliance at times. He helped lead the Cougars to five wins in their final six games.
Now, everyone is expecting Heaps to be the next great BYU quarterback.
"It's been an amazing transition to see the poise and maturity and watch the class and dignity he's handled some of the difficult things, but also the pressure," Mendenhall said. "Now that we've gone independent with the ESPN contract and a national exposure game in our first one with Ole Miss, he seems very comfortable, he seems at ease, he seems confident. I think he's growing up and maturing. He started at a relatively high point as a true freshman. Being a true freshman quarterback at BYU is difficult, but Jake has since been married, which is a huge step for any person. Now, he's managing his schooling, he's managing his faith, he's managing his marriage and he's managing this very unique season coming up. I'm not sure anyone would know it if you talked to him. He's smiling, he seems happier than he's ever been. I've been very impressed. Where have the biggest steps been? I'd say poise, confidence, maturity — and he seems happier."
Heaps has paid close attention to the quarterback battle at Ole Miss because of his friendship with Rebel sophomore QB Barry Brunetti, who will start against BYU on Saturday.
"Me and Barry Brunetti are actually very close friends," Heaps told the Oxford Eagle. "We've been to a few camps together and we always text each other. It's fun catching up with him and I'm very happy for him that he got the job. It's a tough situation. I was in that situation last year. I guess in his case it was a three-man race. I was in a two-quarterback battle and he was in a three-quarterback battle. Now he gets most of the reps for himself. It's really tough to be in that situation. You're coming into the game with really less reps than an average starting quarterback would get. It's a tough situation, but I know Barry can handle it. I think Barry is very deserving. He's a great kid. He works extremely hard and he's a talented football player above all."