PROVO — Suddenly, BYU's coaching staff has a quarterback controversy on its hands, with important questions to consider and a big decision to make.
When the Cougars host San Jose State Saturday (8:15 p.m., MT, ESPNU), will the starting quarterback be sophomore Jake Heaps or junior Riley Nelson? Will both QBs play, rotating like they did at the beginning of the 2010 campaign? Do the coaches stay the course by sticking with Heaps as the starter? Do they risk hindering Heaps' development and confidence by going with Nelson? Is Nelson the long-term solution? Or is he a situational quarterback?
A little more than one year ago, Heaps became BYU's starter as Nelson underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Since then, the Cougars have invested in Heaps as the future of the program. He's started the last 15 games.
But after Heaps struggled, once again, against Utah State, offensive coordinator Brandon Doman decided to make a change, inserting Nelson with five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Nelson rallied the Cougars from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit as BYU downed USU in dramatic fashion, 27-24.
Against the Aggies, Heaps completed 11-of-25 passes for 107 yards. Nelson completed 10-of-14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed 11 times for 68 yards. He also provided a jolt of energy to a previously listless offense.
Even before Nelson's late-game heroics, he picked up a critical first down in the first quarter with an aggressive run on a fourth-and-1 play at the Aggie 5-yard line, picking up four yards and setting up the Cougars' first touchdown of the game.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said he and the offensive staff would discuss the quarterback situation over the weekend and into this week.
Certainly, BYU coaches and players have confidence in Nelson's ability to lead and make plays.
"Riley is a fierce competitor. He is unconventional," Mendenhall said. "He's someone that I admire simply from just a natural, find-a-way-to-get-it-done mindset. He runs down on our scout kickoff team every practice. Being the backup quarterback that he would not take it as sulking or pouting but covering punts and kickoffs trying to help our team says a lot who he is. I think that's why there was an additional spark to the team because they respect that unselfish mindset about him. Not just this year, but since he came into our program."
Added Mendenhall: "I wouldn't put anything past Riley. He's just a phenomenal young man. That's not to take anything away from Jake. Riley played a really nice football game and I was proud of him."
Asked if the players have lost faith in Heaps, Mendenhall replied, "I don't think so. I think they see great potential in Jake, just like myself and our offensive staff. To be BYU's quarterback, especially at such a young age, with the scrutiny, and especially if you don't win or have a stellar game … this community is difficult. I expect our team to rally around Jake and I don't think any of them have lost confidence. It's just difficult. We'll help him the best we can to make sure that he continues to grow and learn and progress as a quarterback here at BYU."
Cougar linebacker Brandon Ogletree said the most effective quarterback should play.
"No disrespect to any of my teammates because Jake works his tail off too. But if any of us aren't performing, someone else comes in for us. That's football. I trust Jake to keep a level head and he'll fight through this and he'll keep working hard. And Riley's going to keep working hard. But at the end of the day, whoever moves the ball, that's who's going to play quarterback, I think."
Though he has been the backup QB for quite a while, Nelson has been preparing for an opportunity like the one that presented itself last Friday night.
"You're the backup quarterback. Not much is expected of you," Nelson said. "If you go in there and don't play too well, that's what people expect. And if you go in there and play great, all of a sudden you're the greatest thing since sliced bread. That was kind of my approach to it, to go out and even though recently I haven't had a lot of game-like experience, the few reps I get in practice and things like the spring game, I try to make those as game-like as possible. I tried to control my emotions so they were the same in those practice situations as they were in the game. I will admit you go in there and automatically the heart starts beating and your mind starts racing. I tried really hard to calm myself down and just play football. I didn't do it perfectly, but I feel like I did a pretty good job."
Asked if he sees himself as a starting quarterback, Nelson responded, "I don't make personnel decisions."
That's the responsibility of the Cougar coaches — and they have a big decision to make this week.
Cougars and Spartans on the air
San Jose State (2-3) at BYU (3-2)
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