PROVO — Standing anxiously on the sidelines last Saturday at Oregon State, BYU sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps longed for another chance to take snaps. Instead, he stayed on the sidelines, watching his replacement, Riley Nelson, guide the Cougar offense to a season-high 38 points in a win over the Beavers.
"It's tough once you've been on the field," Heaps admitted this week. "You always want to be out there, especially since you've built strong relationships with those guys on the field. You want to battle out there with them and experience that together. Now my role has changed, and I support the team in whatever way I can."
After starting the first five games of the season, Heaps has been relegated to the role of backup. He hasn't played in two straight contests, which means he hasn't thrown a single pass in a game in the month of October.
"I definitely can learn a lot from this situation. I plan to make it a great situation for myself," Heaps said. "I'm learning from past mistakes and what I can do better this time around. It's definitely not the process that I would love to go through, but I'm going to make the best of it."
Chances are Heaps could return to the field at some point on Saturday (1 p.m., MT, BYUtv), when the Cougars host Idaho State, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
"I would love for Jake to get a chance to go in and play, whenever that is," said quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman.
Should BYU jump out to a large lead against the Bengals, Heaps could get another chance to show what he can do.
"I'm hoping so. That would be great," Heaps said, smiling. "I'm rooting for my team and rooting for the opportunity. If everything goes according to plan, then the reason why I'm coming on the field is because we're winning the game big. That would be a great thing for our football team. A lot of these guys in this locker room have worked hard in practice. They're excited to get their chance to play as well. If we were able to come out and play, that would be awesome."
Until recently, Heaps' collegiate career seemed to be going according to plan. But after Heaps and the offense struggled through the first 4½ games, the script changed in stunning fashion.
Regarded by some as the No. 1 prep QB in the country, Heaps arrived in Provo in the winter of 2010 with tons of hype and expectations. After breaking every freshman quarterback record at BYU last season, it appeared that Heaps was poised for a huge sophomore year.
But the offense failed to establish consistency, or score enough points, with Heaps as the starter. Doman, who recruited Heaps to BYU, decided to turn to backup Riley Nelson when the Cougars trailed Utah State late in the third quarter.
Not only did Nelson rally the Cougars to a dramatic win over the Aggies, but he's also started, and won, two more games. Before that memorable comeback against USU, nobody could have predicted this turn of events.
And nobody is more surprised than Heaps.
But through it all, Doman said Heaps has continued to work hard and prepare himself every week as if he were going to play. Doman said Heaps has handled the situation "real well. I've been proud of him."
"That's the only mindset you can have," Heaps said of always being ready to play. "That's the type of person that I am. It doesn't matter what role I have, I'm going to prepare like I'm the starter. I'm going to give it my all in practice and do everything I can to make sure I'm getting better."
As a former BYU quarterback himself, Doman can relate in some ways to Heaps' position. Doman rode the bench until the end of his junior year, when he earned the starting job. As a starter, Doman guided the Cougars to a 14-2 record in 16 games.
"I've never been benched. (Heaps) feels like he's been benched," Doman said. "But I've certainly been the backup before and I've certainly had to overcome some of those adversities. It's part of life. It's part of the deal. Things don't always just go right for you. If you believe that's going to happen, and you don't prepare for the other, then you're wrong. You're going to have some hard times. Jake right now is facing a wall. It's an opportunity for him to climb over it. It's not a wall that he can't climb over. Maybe he can take a sledgehammer and knock it down. He's got to get through it."
How did Heaps lose the starting job after playing so well at the end of last season?
Heaps said he takes full responsibility for his mistakes, and he makes no excuses. But he acknowledged that things have changed since he was playing.
The Cougars opened the 2011 campaign with hard-fought road games at Ole Miss and Texas, followed by a 54-10 loss to Utah at home, with Doman, a first-year offensive coordinator, calling the plays. Until the emergence in recent weeks of running back Michael Alisa, coupled with Nelson's running ability, BYU lacked a strong rushing attack.
"We see once we have productivity in our run game, it opens everything else up," Heaps said. "We're a lot more efficient as a football team. Everyone's getting experience, from our offensive coordinator all the way on down. Everyone's learning and growing together. Now we've got things figured out."
Since losing the starting job, Heaps has learned that "you can't really press things, you can't really force things. You've got to play within yourself, just go out there and have fun and play relaxed and have confidence in your abilities and your teammates' abilities."
Did he put too much pressure on himself?
"No. I don't think I put too much pressure on myself," Heaps said. "At the end of the day, once I got out there on the field, I wasn't as relaxed as I usually am. When it gets down to the core of it, it's just going out there, having fun and being confident and enjoying it. That's the biggest thing."
Because he was a high school phenom with scholarship offers from dozens of major programs, and because Nelson is only a junior, many are speculating that Heaps could leave BYU after this season.
"At this point, I really haven't given that any thought. It's too early to talk about that stuff," Heaps said. "I'm just focused on our team and helping us win and doing whatever I can to fulfill the role I have and do whatever is asked of me, whether I'm the starter or not. I'm going to give it all that I can and the other stuff will come later. It will work its way out."
Doman said he isn't concerned right now about the possibility of Heaps transferring.
"I hope he sticks around. I hope that I get to coach him all the way to the finish. I would suspect that will be the case, that he'll end up playing and doing great again," he said. "We just don't know when. I believe he's got that resolved in his own mind, but that's something he'll have to resolve in his mind, if he hasn't resolved it, in order for him to be great."
Doman, who knows all about being stranded on the sidelines, said he expects Heaps to be a better quarterback after going through this experience as a backup. "He's in the middle of a tough situation. I believe he'll overcome it and he'll learn some lessons that otherwise were unattainable in previous circumstances."
Cougars on the air
Idaho State (2-5) at BYU (5-2)
Saturday, 1 p.m. MT
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Games started: Heaps 5; Nelson 2
Pass efficiency rating: Heaps 97.68; Nelson 161.54
Comp-Att-Int: Heaps 100-185-5; Nelson 44-72-3
Completion pct.: Heaps 54.1; Nelson 61.1
Touchdown passes: Heaps 3; Nelson 8
Pass yds: Heaps 962; Nelson 618
Rush yds: Heaps 61; Nelson 222
Total offense: Heaps 901; Nelson 840
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