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Riley Nelson or Taysom Hill? A quarterback's perspective

By Paul Shoemaker

for the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Sept. 24 2012 1:42 p.m. MDT

Boise State linebacker J.C. Percy (48) brings down BYU quarterback Riley Nelson, right, in the first half of the Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012 Boise State 7-6 victory over BYU at Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho.

Idaho Press-Tribune, Greg Kreller, Associated Press

It has been less than a year since the Riley Nelson-Jake Heaps quarterback controversy began boiling over, and already BYU is facing another similar situation. Entering the 2012 season BYU coaches, players and fans had high expectations for a great year. Both the defense and offense had key returning starters and more importantly BYU had a senior quarterback leading the way.

After four games, the defense has lived up to and exceeded expectations. On the other hand, the offense has been great against two poor teams and extremely inconsistent against two, yet-to-be-determined, good teams. BYU's record is 2-2 and Riley Nelson's poor play against good teams continues to be a major frustration.

Let's look back at Nelson's career and the games he has started. In 2010, he started three games, seven games in 2011, and four games thus far in 2012. BYU has won nine of those 14 games (64 percent winning percentage) but let's look at those wins more closely. The combined season records (partial records for 2012 teams) of those opponents are 35 wins and 59 losses. Only Washington, who BYU played at home to open the 2010 season, and Tulsa in the 2011 Armed Forces Bowl finished their seasons with a winning record.

Washington's final record was 7-6 and Tulsa was 8-5. BYU's wins in 2011 when Nelson started were against San Jose State (5-7), Oregon State (3-9), Idaho State (2-9), Idaho (2-10) and Hawaii (6-7). So far in 2012, Washington State is 2-2 and Weber State is 0-4. Washington State showed how poor it is in losing on Saturday to Colorado, which picked up its first win of season.

In reality, would it have really mattered if Riley Nelson, Jake Heaps, Taysom Hill or James Lark were playing in those wins? I would venture to say the results would have been the same.

The real reason fans are frustrated with Riley Nelson is because of his performance against the good teams. Nelson's five losses came against Air Force and Florida State (briefly played before being injured) in 2010, TCU in 2011, and Utah and Boise State in 2012. In those games he is a combined 62 of 136 passing, which is a completion percentage of 45.6 percent and has nine interceptions with only six touchdowns.

His passing efficiency is an average of 67.4 percent (three full games, 1/4 game against Florida State in 2010 and 3/4 game against Boise State in 2012). To compare, his passing efficiency in his nine wins is an average of 162.9 percent.

Riley is a good quarterback against poor teams and a below average quarterback against good teams. Can he play well enough for BYU to beat upcoming opponents Hawaii, Idaho, San Jose State and New Mexico State? Yes he can and BYU fans will be happy after those wins. The concern is can he avoid interceptions and fumbles to play well enough for wins against Utah State, Oregon State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech? History says no.

If this is the case, and we have no history to believe otherwise, should Taysom Hill be the starter Friday night against Hawaii? Hill is a bigger, faster, stronger and younger version of Nelson. Granted, we haven't seen enough of Hill to gauge his passing ability but the offensive game plan doesn't seem to change whether Nelson or Hill is in the game.

Given that Nelson is a senior and Hill is a freshman, why not play Hill now without giving up anything? BYU may struggle a little more with the weaker teams left on the schedule but will likely still win with Hill starting. Against the tougher teams, the results may be the same but Hill would gain the experience for next year.

In regard to next year, the unfinished schedule already has Texas, Utah, Boise State, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Notre Dame on it. If Nelson doesn't give BYU a major advantage over Hill and the results for the rest of this season will likely be the same, Hill should be the guy to gain valuable experience.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall already made a difficult decision by going for two against Boise State. That decision backfired. Now it's time for another difficult decision, which potentially has his most respected senior quarterback being benched. Last week, BYU showed it is willing to demote a senior quarterback when they moved Hill ahead of James Lark on the depth chart. This week is the time to move Hill up one more spot to the starting quarterback position.

Paul Shoemaker was a BYU quarterback from 1992-1997.

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