SALT LAKE CITY — Oh, great. Another quarterback controversy at BYU. Haven't we traveled this road? Experts say when resolving conflict, it's unwise to keep revisiting old arguments. So why are we having this discussion?
Didn't BYU decide once and for all that Jake Heaps was the answer?
The plot thickened last Friday in the Cougars' comeback win over Utah State. The short story is that Riley Nelson, a likable, ebullient player, came off the bench to revitalize BYU's offense. The Utah State transfer launched a pass that landed in the waiting, waiting, waiting hands of McKay Jacobson to set up the winning touchdown. The game-winner came on a tipped pass to a secondary receiver.
So the Cougs escaped by a tuft of their slightly mottled fur. For the Aggies, it was a bitter reminder of the chasm between believing and executing. For the Cougars, it was a trip back into angst-land, where they are unsure whether to go with their heads or their hearts.
On the heart side, you have Nelson, a feisty, smart player who deserves all the praise that comes his way, but remains a short-term answer to an ongoing problem. On the logical side, you have heaven's gift to quarterbacking, Jake Heaps, a singular talent whose game hasn't yet caught up with his arm.
Both Heaps and Nelson appear to be high-character people. But the situation brings to mind a remark by a former NBA coach who said of building a team, "Give me talent. I can teach 'em character."
In that case, it's not a contest who should be BYU's starter.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday he probably won't name a starter for Saturday's game against San Jose State until late this week. Most thought he had decided last year, partway through a 34-10 loss to Florida State, when Nelson got injured. Heaps struggled early but eventually found his footing, leading the Cougars to six wins in their final eight games.
After a 52-24 win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, Heaps seemed fail-proof. That wasn't a cardboard cutout of Ty Detmer that dominated the game. The biggest question over the summer was where Heaps will finish on the list of all-time great Cougar quarterbacks, and how soon. He was considered by many an honors candidate.
Meanwhile, Nelson gallantly played the backup role, never complaining about the Cougars' decision. Now he is in the news because it was he, not Heaps, who led the BYU comeback against USU. He had nearly twice as many total yards. But realistically, how many times can he do that after opponents start preparing specifically for him?
Nelson could start at numerous Division I schools. Utah State, for one, where he did so before transferring to BYU. Utah would trade its Nobel Prize to have Nelson playing this Saturday against Arizona State, while Jordan Wynn recovers from a shoulder injury.
Nelson adds a rushing dimension to BYU's offense, but it's not one that can carry the Cougars throughout the game, every game. Too many questions about his ability to consistently move the team. He was 1-for-4 passing with an interception against FSU last year. BYU scored just 10 points in that game and 14 against Air Force. (In fairness, it should be noted BYU scored just 13 against Nevada and 16 against USU with Heaps starting the next two weeks.)
More important is the matter of confidence. Not Nelson's — he seems to have plenty of that. But if Heaps is lacking experience and confidence, he won't get it watching Nelson. To start Nelson for the next two years would doom Heaps to either a single year as a starter, or worse yet, convince him to transfer.
Heaps is like an expensive bike that comes in a box — some assembly required. If the Cougars go with Nelson, they'll only be delaying or even hindering the growth of an NFL quarterback.
Mendenhall should stay with Heaps and work on fixing the flaws, however long it takes. With such lightweight opponents as SJSU, Idaho State, Idaho and New Mexico State remaining on their schedule, the final record with Nelson starting wouldn't be much different than it would be with Heaps. Besides, BYU isn't going anywhere beyond the Armed Forces Bowl, regardless of wins.
With so little to gain by switching, it only makes sense to stay the course.
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