PROVO — After undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery a little more than one year ago, BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, who stared the first three games in 2010, quietly faded into the background.
That essentially ended the QB battle between Nelson and Jake Heaps, and as the season wore on, Heaps emerged. He showed improvement, gained confidence, and seized the starting job that he held throughout the offseason, including spring ball and fall camp. Nelson was relegated to the backup spot. As recently as two months ago, it appeared Nelson might fall to No. 3 on the depth chart, behind James Lark. But Nelson continued working hard, playing on the unheralded punt coverage team.
Then on Friday night, Nelson burst back onto the scene in dramatic fashion, replacing Heaps in the third quarter, and engineering a fourth-quarter comeback win against Utah State.
Now, Nelson could start for the first time since in more than a year on Saturday when the Cougars host San Jose State.
That's how fast things can change.
So what becomes of Heaps, who was rated by some as the top high school quarterback recruit in the nation in 2009, and as recently as a couple of months ago, appeared to be on the brink of becoming BYU's next great quarterback?
Coach Bronco Mendenhall will decide which one starts Saturday, with significant input from offensive coordinator Brandon Doman.
Doman's focus this week is to prepare both quarterbacks "as if both were going to play this game, then let the head football coach make that decision. That's part of being the head coach — he gets to do that and I'll support whatever decision he makes."
The way the coaches handle this situation could have huge ramifications for this season — and beyond.
"It weighs heavily on my mind," Doman said. "If you choose to go with Riley, then obviously you have Jake — what development is there for him? — because he is an outstanding quarterback. I see him having a great role as we go on. That would be weighed heavily in the decision. If you go with Jake, Riley's going to have to remain positive and hang in there and be a team guy. For him, he probably feels like he's earned an opportunity to play, so he'd have to remain positive. It's a tough decision."
Mendenhall said he's looking at the big-picture perspective of the quarterback situation.
"Either way, this isn't only a one-game decision and it's not only a season decision. It's trying to take into account two young men, the short term and the long term for each, and the program. To say all of a sudden on Monday we'll name a starting quarterback? Not the case. And it might change still."
What factors will determine who starts on Saturday?
"Productivity immediately will win the day," Mendenhall said. "But again, I don't see this being (a situation where) we name a starter this week and then it's tenure through the rest of the season. I see it where if we're not quite moving the ball as much as we need to and we need a spark, certainly the other player could come in and do just what Riley did if the roles were reversed."
Early last season, the Cougars ran two different offenses, one tailored for the run-oriented Nelson, and another tailored for the passing ability of Heaps.
"That's the lesson we learned a year ago — you can't do that," Mendenhall said. "Even though there are quite a few unique differences (between Heaps and Nelson), basically the offense you saw (Friday) was the offense designed for Jake Heaps with a quarterback draw or two for Riley with all the same passing plays. The offense you've been seeing is our offense."
What Nelson provides, the coach added, is the ability to elude pass rushers, and give receivers time to get open when a play breaks down. And, of course, Nelson can pick up yardage himself by running the ball.
Mendenhall said that while Nelson's knack for running is "kind of part of who he is," he added that Heaps has "great, great potential," and is "more of the prototypical BYU quarterback."
In the same breath, Mendenhall also pointed out the advantages of a running quarterback, evoking the name of one of the best of all-time — former Cougar, and NFL star, Steve Young.
"It just gives you a different element," Mendenhall said of a QB that can make plays with his feet. "It doesn't mean one is better or worse. They're just different styles."
Meanwhile, Doman is eager to see what his two quarterbacks can do. "I look forward to Saturday night," he said. "I'm going to wait and see how these kids act and perform and respond here the next couple of days (in practice), then, gosh, respond and go into this game with great confidence."
Cougars on the air
San Jose State (2-3) at BYU (3-2)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MT
LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM