PROVO — There was a time when Brandon Doman's maiden voyage as BYU's offense coordinator looked like a potential shipwreck.
Early last fall, as the Cougar offense floundered — it produced only three offensive touchdowns in the first three games — Doman was talking with his father, Verl, about his plight.
"My dad said, in perfect dad form, 'This is exactly the right thing for you,' " Doman recalled. "I said, 'What are you talking about? This is miserable.' My dad said, 'No, this is the right thing for you because this is what you need to learn to be good at (play-calling).' "
After three games, the first-year offensive coordinator moved from the field to the press box to call plays. Then, in the fifth game, Doman replaced an ineffective Jake Heaps with Riley Nelson at quarterback, altering the course of the Cougars' season.
As Doman enters his second year as offensive coordinator, he is counting on that early adversity, and those lessons he learned, to help him be better at his job in the long run.
"I hope I've grown a lot. I feel like I have. I'm a lot more confident," he said. "I had so many question marks going into last year. Will I call the game from the field or from the press box? That was a big deal to me last year. All these little things added up and have given me some experience that hopefully will translate into me being better. I hope I've learned those things and as a coordinator I can lead the offense in the way I'm supposed to lead."
The Cougar offense struggled to find its identity early on last season under Heaps (who eventually transferred to Kansas), something Doman and the rest of the staff addressed by establishing an identity during spring drills under Nelson's senior leadership.
"We finished the season and evaluated the season and realized we had done some things wrong," Doman said. "Then we knew who we were and what we wanted to do. We started to build it during spring ball. It's grit, it's execution, and it's tempo. Offensively, we've got to create a better mindset culturally with those kids to be at their best when their best is needed.
"Riley has that. You take him as our leader. It's easier to create a mindset when your quarterback is that guy already. That's been developing. We didn't have that last year. It's hard as a coordinator because I started thinking that I needed to be perfect with my play calls. Then I realized you can't be perfect.
"Ultimately, players are going to have to make plays. We weren't making plays," Doman said. "It was fun to see Riley come in there and all of the sudden, this grit came into our team. We were different."
Doman sees a lot of himself in Nelson. Like Nelson, Doman, who quarterbacked BYU in 2000 and 2001, was a fiery competitor who could run the ball. Like Nelson, Doman was not viewed as a prototypical BYU quarterback. Like Nelson, Doman patiently bided his time as a backup, waiting for the chance to prove himself.
Those similarities helped Doman know what plays to call when Nelson stepped in for Heaps in the second half against Utah State and rallied the Cougars to a last-minute 27-24 win over the Aggies.
"That's probably another reason I like Riley so much. I relate to him," Doman said. "He's smarter than I am. He's intellectually farther along than I was as a student in a lot of ways. I know that early in the game, he's got to take a hit. I don't want him to take a hard hit, but he has to take one.
"Early on in the game, I've got to be able to get him into a rhythm. What is that rhythm? That's how I was. In the second half against Utah State, I had the play-call sheet. It was Jake Heaps' call sheet. I remember putting it aside. I grabbed a piece of paper and started writing plays for Riley. We had to go no-huddle and just signal (the play). We had to do these plays for Riley to be successful. I knew what he needed. A lot of it was him being similar to what I was like."
Like Nelson, Doman was known for his ability to improvise, make clutch plays, and will his team to victory.
Against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl, Nelson sputtered before engineering a 12-play, 48-yard drive in the final four minutes that culminated with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman on an audibled fake spike with 11 seconds remaining, capping a 24-21 triumph.
Nelson led BYU to a 6-1 record as a starter in 2011. Recording a pass efficiency rating of 152.93 and helping the Cougars rank fifth in the nation in third-down conversions, he passed for 1,717 yards and 19 touchdowns while rushing for 392 yards.
Nelson said he and his teammates must be accountable for what happens on the field.
"As a player, the way I look at it is, my responsibility is, whatever play is called, if we execute it, it will be successful," he said. "It's my job not only to execute my responsibility on that play, but to make sure all other 10 guys in the huddle are executing theirs. If we do that, there's not a play in our playbook that shouldn't work."
As a play-caller, Doman sees his job as putting the offense in "manageable" situations, which means not digging a hole on first and second down.
"It's about making sure we're in third-and-short, taking shots down field at the right time, then creating the identity of who we are personnel-wise, and not being predictable," he said. "There's a lot of things that I would like to see our offense be able to do as we create our identity. Hopefully that identity is ours and ours only and our kids can lean on that during the season."
Nelson is confident in Doman's ability to call plays and orchestrate the offense.
"I have full and complete trust in coach Doman," he said. "I don't have any clue what it takes to call plays or anything like that. From what I hear, he went through some scrutiny and criticism at times. But I never saw it. I had a great time working with him. And I look forward even more to seeing what happens this year.
"I do know he's a tireless worker. He's been all over the place during the offseason trying to find ways to make us better. He's shared a few of those ideas with me. We've been in the offensive staff meeting room and gone over those ideas. All of the new ideas he's brought back, all the little nuances and changes and new plays and concepts he's brought in, I am 100 percent behind him and completely excited about it. I expect us to have a real fun year this year."
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