PROVO — Since his arrival on campus in 2006 as a highly touted prep quarterback, BYU senior James Lark has worked hard, bided his time, exercised patience, displayed uncommon loyalty, experienced frustration, and seen his hopes of taking meaningful snaps dashed over and over again.
No wonder then, as the Cougars prepare to visit New Mexico State Saturday (1:30 p.m., MT, ESPN3), Lark isn't allowing himself to get caught up in the possibility of making his first career start in the final regular-season game of his career — even though starter Riley Nelson is dealing with a painful rib injury.
"I'm not letting myself think much about that. I’m just preparing to play," said Lark, who took all the reps in practice Monday and Tuesday. "If I got the start, I would love it. I'd be ready to play. I'm ready to play every week. It would mean a lot, but right now, I'm focused on just getting ready, if the opportunity comes."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall said Tuesday that Nelson is "probable" for Saturday. If Nelson can't play, Lark will start.
In last week's 20-14 loss at San Jose State — while Nelson was writhing in pain due to the rib injury — it appeared that Lark would get a shot to rally the Cougars late in the fourth quarter.
"I started warming up," Lark said. "When we got that onside kick, (Nelson) ran back in and finished it out."
That's been emblematic of Lark's career. Yet instead of being bitter, Lark has focused his efforts on simply getting better, and preparing himself as if he were BYU's starting quarterback.
Earlier this season, when Nelson was nursing a broken back, Lark planned all week on playing against Utah — but it never happened. Just like it didn't happen in San Jose last Saturday.
"He's probably the toughest kid I've ever seen on the football field," Lark said of Nelson. "That kid will go in with a broken back or whatever it is. He's not going out. I'm impressed by him."
Lark began the season as Nelson's backup, but after the Utah game, coaches decided to promote freshman Taysom Hill the No. 2 QB job, explaining that Hill's style was similar to Nelson's.
It was just another tough blow for Lark. "That was a shock," he said.
Asked Monday how close he was to turning to Lark this season, Mendenhall said, "Not really close. Not because of a lack of trust. I tried to explain why Taysom Hill was the backup in terms of continuity of system with Riley. During the last game, a couple of times it was maybe a breath or two away from putting James (Lark) in."
After Hill suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October, Lark returned to his role as the backup. And on Monday and Tuesday, with Nelson sidelined, Lark was the No. 1 quarterback during practice, taking all of the reps — a role he relished.
"It felt great. It was a lot of fun," he said. "I've been waiting for this for a while, for the opportunity just to get in and sling it around in practice. Everyone came out to play. We're not dwelling on the loss we just had. Guys came out and worked hard."
Because of his lack of opportunities, Lark, who served an LDS mission to St. Petersburg, Russia, has contemplated his various options over the years.
"I've thought a few times of, not quitting the team, but not focusing as much and just riding it out," he said. "There were times when I was really motivated and wanted to play, so I thought of transferring. But it never felt right. I'm happy I stuck it out and didn't give up. It's blessed my life tremendously. I kept thinking, 'Maybe I'll get an opportunity and it pays off.'"
Lark continued, “The last two years, I thought about transferring. I was frustrated with the situation. It's frustrating seeing all the quarterbacks that were my age when I was recruited were off either starting or going to the NFL. It's frustrating because I knew I was capable of being a starting quarterback somewhere. I came home off my mission and I was in a hard situation. I wasn't ready to play right away. We had Riley (Nelson) and Jake (Heaps). Riley had been home for a year and Jake was just out of high school. They had been playing football and I hadn't. I was in the backseat. Once the coaches' minds were made on these two guys, there was no chance for me to earn a spot up. I strongly considered it, but it never felt like the right thing to do."
What motivated him to stay at BYU?
"The honest truth is, it wasn't the coaches, it was my best friends — my teammates that I've played here for years with. I love those guys. A lot of them are like brothers to me. I considered them like family. They're the closest people to me in my life besides my wife. I wanted to stick with them."
Lark also credits his wife, Rachel, for her unflagging support. "She's supported me in whatever I wanted to do," he said.
Though they play the same position and compete with each other, Lark and Nelson have forged a close friendship over the years.
"Riley and I were good friends from the start and it's developed into a really close relationship," Lark said. "I consider him one of my best friends. We can talk about anything. He comes over and has dinner with my wife and I sometimes. We hang out a lot. It's a great friendship that will last a long time."
But being buried on the depth chart has been trying.
"It's kind of a bittersweet situation being the backup. I'm excited and anxious, knowing that any day I could play," Lark said. "Obviously not anxious for one of my best friends, Riley, to get hurt, but anxious to step up if I have to. I don't dream of sitting around on the bench. Whatever I can to help the team, I'm ready to do it."
Lark has waited patiently for his chance.
"It's been a long time. It seems like I've been here at BYU my whole life," he said. "I’m ready to go out with a bang."
On Saturday, Lark just may get his opportunity, in his last collegiate regular-season game, to finally start. It would be a fitting reward for seven years of patience and loyalty.
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