Dick Harmon: BYU football: Start Heaps or Nelson? Both plans can work

Published: Monday, Oct. 3 2011 8:29 p.m. MDT

PROVO — If BYU starts Jake Heaps or Riley Nelson on Saturday, it will be the right decision.

And not announcing what they'll do on Monday was absolutely the correct way to play it.

If BYU goes with Nelson, it is the right decision because the spunky junior quarterback delivered an emotional comeback win last Friday against Utah State, and he should be rewarded.

If the coaches decide Nelson is the starter, they choose to ride the emotional boost Nelson gave the team, in particular a struggling offense, and it is a decision to roll with that energy.

If BYU coaches go with Heaps, they'll basically be saying to the team that they should trust their choice made months ago, and step up and support a guy who has played the toughest part of the season and done so with shaken confidence, but he'll learn, they'll say.

Trust us, they'll say to the squad. Get it, they'll say to Heaps.

If BYU goes with Heaps, it will be testing the young sophomore to see if he reacts the way they hope he will, that sitting on the sidelines last Friday may have provided a wake-up call, and they want to see if it clicked a switch. If not, they may want to issue another wake-up call. Again. And again.

If BYU goes with Heaps and he struggles to produce touchdowns and convert third-down plays, they can always turn to Nelson and hope for another emotional spark, a lift and playmaking that gets the job done. It may not be so easy to get that result if you reverse it and give Nelson the start, and if he struggles, bring in the younger player and ask him to pick up the pieces.

This is the decision BYU's offensive coaches wrestle with today as field prep for the Spartans of San Jose State begins.

If they go with Nelson, he'll be facing defenders who will have spent a week breaking down film, designing a game plan to protect against his running ability. Unlike the Aggies, they will not be surprised.

San Jose State will break down BYU's designed QB run blocking schemes, it will emphasize gap control and put a spy on Nelson while bringing eight defenders to the box and dare him to beat them with his arm.

The Spartans got blown out by the Pac-12's Stanford in the season-opener but did hold Heisman Trophy candidate Andrew Luck to his lowest pass efficiency rating, lowest passing yards and touchdowns of the season.

If BYU goes with Heaps, defenders will set in motion a more conventional defensive scheme and try to place the sophomore in third-and-long situations and see if he can convert. They'll have to do so with defenders who may not be as skilled as Ole Miss, Texas and Utah.

If BYU goes with Heaps and needs to turn to Nelson during the game, the change-up could catch the Spartans off balance, especially if there is a little fatigue from linemen and linebackers to react after having played a different style for several quarters.

Regardless of whom BYU starts at quarterback, and that one single call is big, it doesn't hide myriad shortfalls by the offense we've seen the past month with timing, getting plays off at the right time, false starts, bad hikes in the shotgun or fumbles by backs.

What BYU's offense needs more than anything is success. It needs to produce points and build confidence — no matter who is the quarterback. The guy that gets that done is the one the Cougars need, but it isn't a catch-all solution because BYU needs plenty of work to reach its potential.

Center Terrence Brown told reporters Monday it doesn't matter to him who starts at quarterback and he supports whatever decision is made. "We just need to get behind him and play," Brown said.

Brown said BYU scored 13 points in the first half against Utah State when Heaps was in the game and 14 points in the second half when Nelson was on the field. "Not much difference."

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