Tom Smart, Deseret News
PROVO — Surrounded by the trappings of modern (and not so modern) media, there was no question on Wednesday that it was Riley Nelson's team now. Which meant there was no ambiguous we'll-see-what-happens rhetoric. It will be his quarterbacking job from Day 1 this fall, and things will stay that way until winter or unforeseen calamity overtakes him.
Otherwise, plan on him being as ubiquitous as Cosmo the Cougar at BYU in 2012.
For the first time in more than a half-decade, the guy whose legs were too short, passes too wobbly and game too earth-bound, need not worry. The job is his, no ifs, maybes or theoreticals about it.
"It feels like high school again ... I'm back in that comfort zone," Nelson said at Wednesday's BYU football media day. "So it feels good and we're ready and rarin' to go."
Which makes you wonder: How long has it actually been since he spent a summer knowing the job was his alone?
Since "rarin'" was a popular term, at least.
Nelson's story is fairly common, that of the undersized kid who just kept coming. It wasn't exactly Rudyesque — Nelson was a Parade All-America — but it was similar in one sense: He doesn't particularly look the part.
A record-setting quarterback from Logan High, and grandson of former USU athletic director Rod Tueller, Nelson originally played at Utah State. But he had to sit behind starter Leon Jackson III in 2006, his freshman year, until taking over five games into the season. He ended up completing 55 percent of his passes and becoming the team's second-leading rusher.
Although unpolished, he clearly had the right attitude. Even as a freshman, he talked like a senior. Beneath the mop of impossibly thick hair there was a ton of positive vibe.
But he departed the next year for an LDS mission to Spain. Next thing anyone knew, he had returned and was wearing Aggie blue — but in a different location. It was the ultimate betrayal in the eyes of USU fans. He hadn't just left Logan, he'd moved to Provo.
Why didn't he just steal the family silverware as he was leaving?
Asked on Wednesday if he still loves USU, he said, "Interesting question, because I've got to be careful with Aggie fans. I'll just say this: USU means a lot me, the program does, my little brother is going there, and I have history that goes back to the nineteen-teens."
He has a picture that hangs above his bed from 1921 that features his two great-grandfathers at Utah State — one the head trainer, the other a quarterback. One grandfather played football for USU, the other is Tueller. His father and uncles were USU athletes. Nelson maintains a good relationship with USU coach Gary Andersen, who recruited him at Utah.
"So I don't know if the Aggies want me," Nelson said, "but I'm definitely an Aggie fan."
The move made no sense to a lot of USU fans, which hurt all the worse. Nelson left when he was almost certain to return a starter, to play where he was almost certainly a backup. BYU was entrenched with Max Hall in 2009, and later staked its hopes on strong-armed Jake Heaps. Nelson sat on the bench most of 2009, passing for just 99 yards. The next year he began the season alternating series with Heaps, who eventually led BYU to a New Mexico Bowl win over UTEP.
After Nelson's second season in Provo, assistant coach Brandon Doman called him in and "told me we're moving in another direction."
The pitch was that he could still be a quarterback, just not THE quarterback.
"He told me, 'I just want you to know all the options that lie before you' — one of those options being a career backup, possibly never seeing another meaningful stat," Nelson said.
In Nelson's world, that's like saying you might never again walk.
Nelson said he looked at playing defense, but it was too deep, so he pushed to play special teams. Until he became a starter midway last year, he was on punt coverage.
"I realized I needed to stay the course, and so much can change from play to play," Nelson said. "I came to grips that if I didn't play another down, it didn't validate who I was, didn't lessen my value as a person. I knew if I worked as hard as I could, that I could sleep good at night, and if I didn't play, it wasn't in the cards."
Little did he know he held a full house.
So just like that, his life changed. Heaps struggled early, last year, and by the fifth game had been benched in favor of Nelson, who is on the cover of the team's 2012 media guide — as well as on pages 3, 6 and 14.
With Heaps having transferred to Kansas, Nelson is the unchallenged leader. Nevertheless, he maintains a modest approach. Ask about being an unquestioned starter for the first time since 2005 and he'll say he's grateful it worked out. Mention that the drama is over and he'll praise teammates and coaches. Still, he won't mislead you. Job security, he'll say, is a nice thing for anyone. This year he's not auditioning. He's playing the lead, while everyone else does the waiting.
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