SAN DIEGO —
James Lark is jumpy as a reindeer. This is the athletic Christmas of his life. His cup runs over with drink from a pitcher that was never full.
Thursday, he is expected to start in the Poinsettia Bowl.
In a fair world, Lark would have returned from his Mormon mission to Russia, become the starting quarterback at BYU and be finishing his career this week with a storied journey filled with thousands of passing yards and dozens of touchdowns, seasons of victories, notations in record books, an invitation to a senior bowl and the NFL Combine, and an expected shot at continuing his career at the next level.
All those things were his lifetime expectations, mutual goals shared by family, friends, loved ones, his high school coaches in St. George, and an opportunity BYU presented to him when they signed him as a 7,000-yard high school passer.
In a perfect world, all should have come to pass. Lark should have come to pass.
Just months before he signed at BYU, I sat in his living room in St. George, visiting with his mother and father while I waited for him to come home from school. He committed to play for BYU early that summer. Lark was Huckleberry Finn, his life an adventure yet to come. He was a prototype Cougar: trusting, faithful, devout, obedient, a true believer.
It seemed as if there was a BYU stamp on his forehead.
Then BYU signed Riley Nelson, his 3A rival the Cougars had initially passed on when the two graduated from high school in 2006. Nelson signed and played a year at Utah State, but switched choices while on his own mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then BYU signed Jake Heaps, a highly recruited prospect from Washington state.
In a fair world, Lark would have reached up, knocked out all competition and lived his dream. But in a quarterback logjam and a run through two offensive coordinators, Lark was the odd man out.
Today, Lark's entire college career is boxed and wrapped up in a one-game highlight video of a spectacular six-touchdown pass performance at Las Cruces, N.M., the last time he played.
Since that time, injury to Nelson has forced Lark to be BYU's quarterback, a role that fate dictates will continue Thursday night against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl, his final college appearance.
Lark needs to stuff his entire career into this final game and make it a nice two-game set.
After a practice at Helix High School here in San Diego, Lark stood, a crowd of reporters gathered before him in half a circle. With 10,000 practice passes and that New Mexico State highlight under his belt, he stood and spoke as BYU's unannounced starter.
Forgive me if I relay what I saw: a twinkle in his eye, a shot of happiness, a look of hope unfeigned.
"Are you the starter?" someone asked.
"No comment," Lark said.
That he'd taken No. 1 snaps for two weeks should have spoken for itself.
BYU once owned this town's bowl game: Jim McMahon to Clay Brown; Steve Young's TD catch; Ty Detmer's bowl passing record against Penn State. The Cougars had come to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl so often that by 1993 some players and fans were tired of SeaWorld, the battleship and San Diego. After a 19-year absence, this city is magic again for players who were barely born when John Walsh took on Ohio State here in 1993. Lark was thrilled to be here for the Poinsettia Bowl, genuinely giddy, and said his teammates were too.
"This is great, just awesome," said Lark. "There's so much to do and see, and in the evening we're free to go enjoy the city. It's great. Everyone loves it."
Meaningful practice, meaningful reps, a chance to start?
Lark says everything is different on this bowl trip.
"I'm very excited. The mindset? Well, I've tried to keep it focused," he said, "but in past bowl games, my mind hasn't been as strong as it is now. I have to stay focused. I can't enjoy the city as much as in times past because I have to stay in and watch extra film and get prepared for the game because, ultimately, we are here to win a football game."
In San Diego State, Lark will face a defense that's probably 70 to 80 percent more efficient than NMSU in terms of coverage, tackling and pass rush. In order to win, BYU has to run the ball and in order to run, the Cougars will need the Aztecs to not crowd the box and place men in coverage.
That's where Lark's skills will come in. He has a stronger arm than Nelson and is healthier in delivering with his arm, shoulder and legs than Nelson's whole core passes that require a kind of hop to get velocity on the ball.
Quicker delivery on bubble screens, corner outs, slants and even trying to hit the post all come into play with Lark.
SDSU gave up 434 yards passing to North Dakota State and 536 to Fresno State. If BYU can get Lark close to those numbers without having to throw 50 times, it would bode well for the Cougars. But it starts with the run.
Come Thursday, BYU will give the Aztecs a dose of Lark, but Nelson could come in for situational downs, if healthy.
James Lark. All he wants is another chance.
He's got a career to make in a one-time, single-shot December night in Navy Town.
Who could ask for more?
Not this true believer.
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