Brad Rock: BYU Cougars need to move beyond the Riley Nelson era
Tom Smart, Deseret News
We've been here before, right? Guy subs in at quarterback, does some fancy things, wins a game, and before you know it everyone's in love with him.
Quarterback infatuation is big business at BYU. If only they had used James Lark against Utah and Notre Dame. If only he had been leading the charge against Oregon State and Boise State. San Jose State should have been a fairly easy win, if only ... if not for ... if instead ...
So it's down to one game, the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20 against San Diego State. The Aztecs aren't bad. They beat Boise State, came close to Washington. It's a team that could ambush the Cougars, especially since the game is on the Aztecs' home field.
So does Bronco Mendenhall go with his emotional leader or the flavor of the month?
The flavor, of course.
He should start Lark on a lark, so to speak. Riley Nelson and Lark are both seniors, so neither will be around more than one game. Nevertheless, it matters to BYU's future who starts in San Diego.
The transformation should begin post-haste.
Except when injured, Nelson has started since mid-season last year when he replaced Jake Heaps. Lark started last week and passed for six touchdowns in a win over New Mexico State. Nobody is denying it was an easy opponent. Still, Lark's performance wasn't just adequate; it was stupendous. The whole thing left Cougar fans wondering where Mendenhall had been keeping him. Oh, wait, they already knew — right next to the Gatorade cooler.
In fairness, this is how it usually works. Unless the quarterback is Ty Detmer, there's always supposed to be someone that's under-utilized. The Cougars could prop a 2x4 on the sidelines and some fans would scream, "Send him in!"
But if Mendenhall is wise, he'll choose Lark over Nelson next month for this reason: It's time to move the program to a different place at quarterback, even if it begins with a player who has just one game remaining. Mendenhall can show he's flexible enough to admit that sometimes a hot hand beats a big heart. There's no better place to do that than a minor bowl game. Mendenhall needs to show he's not blind to talent, which is a legitimate worry considering what happened with Heaps, a one-time can't-miss prospect.
It's not like Mendenhall has never changed gears before. Although it seems long ago, it was just September 2011 when Mendenhall made his last non-injury quarterback switch. Heaps had taken the Cougars through the first 4 1/2 games, looking OK at times, overrated at others. He won at Ole Miss, lost at Texas, got embarrassed against Utah and edged Central Florida. Then came the Utah State game, when Nelson subbed in to beat the Aggies with late dramatics.
After that, the Cougars were living the life of Riley. Heaps transferred and the tough, likable, relentlessly competitive Nelson took it from there.
In the past 14 months, though, a trend has developed. Nelson has looked good against teams like Idaho, Weber State and Washington State but stalled at key points against Oregon State, Notre Dame and Utah. He has proven to be a quarterback that takes too many hits and commits too many turnovers.
A determined but beat-up signal-caller can only take a team so far.
Last Saturday, Cougar fans were delighted to get back to a quarterback who throws spirals. Beyond that, Lark's back and ribs are fine. There's a chance Nelson won't even be healthy for the bowl. Regardless, BYU needs to play the guy with the best shot at winning, not just a winning attitude. It needs to start getting back to quarterbacks who move the team with their arms, not just their legs.
Nelson deserves credit for what he did. He won some games (13-8 as a starter) and even thrilled crowds. But that was before his turnovers overtook his touchdown passes.
He has given up his body in pursuit of wins.
Now he needs to give up his starting spot.
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