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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
BYU QB James Lark comes up the the line during BYU Spring football practice on March 29, 2010.

PROVO — Quarterback James Lark was passionate about BYU when he signed with the Cougars out of Pine View High in 2006.

Four years later, that passion remains.

While Lark was serving a mission in St. Petersburg, Russia, two highly touted QBs decided to join BYU's program — Riley Nelson, a transfer from Utah State, and Jake Heaps, a prep star from Skyline High in Washington.

Of course, Lark found out about those additions to the roster during his time in Russia.

"I had lots of people telling me to transfer. But my heart was here at BYU," Lark said. "I knew I was going to come back to BYU, no matter what. I love the football program, I love everything about BYU. There's no way I was going to leave. I wasn't scared of the competition. I was excited for it."

Lark, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore, returned from Russia in December and immediately began preparing for the upcoming season.

"I got home and jumped right into it," he said. "The first day back, I was out playing football. Physically, I feel great. I'm stronger than I was before my mission, and I'm 20 pounds lighter. Maybe I'm not quite as fast right now. But the thing that was the hardest was getting my arm going again. I hadn't thrown a football in two years. I have a long ways to go. But every day, it's getting better."

As a freshman at BYU, Lark suffered a serious ankle injury, but recovered before departing for Russia. "It took me a while to get some strength back in my ankle," Lark said. "I was scared it would never come back. But I'm getting stronger."

Quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman has noticed a big difference in Lark since he came back from his mission.

"I'm really impressed that he's as physically ready as he is," Doman said. "He was in St. Petersburg, Russia, and I think that made him grow up faster than he normally would have. He's a grown man now. He has goals, he knows what he wants to accomplish, and he's driven right now. He's 21 years old, almost 22. He brings a lot of maturity."

SAFETY DANCE: BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said a decision on the starting free safety position won't be decided until fall camp.

The Cougars return senior safety Andrew Rich, but they are looking for a replacement for free safety Scott Johnson, who graduated. Mendenhall is evaluating several candidates and pointed out that Rich could switch to free safety.

For now, the race to become the other starting safety is "dead-even," according to Mendenhall, between junior Steven Thomas, redshirt freshman Jray Galeai and Travis Uale.

"Much like our quarterback situation, each has different strengths, but none at this point has established themselves clearly enough for me to say this is who it's going to be," Mendenhall said. "It's going to take more time."

In the fall, two freshmen who signed with BYU in February — Jordan Johnson and Kori Gaines — will join the competition.

"Most likely we'll play them both at safety," Mendenhall said. "That seems to be a bigger need right now (than cornerback). We'll put them both in the mix and then see how that plays out."

NOT A SNAP: During 11-on-11 drills Wednesday, there were several bad snaps that stalled some drives.

"We've got a little work to do," Mendenhall said. "It just shows how important the center position is. If that position is having a rough day, it's hard for everyone else to play the game."

EXTRA POINTS: Former BYU quarterback John Beck, who's now with the Baltimore Ravens, was among those who watched Wednesday's practice. ... Freshman wide receiver Ross Apo, who underwent shoulder surgery during the winter, participated in non-contact drills for the first time this spring. ... During 11-on-11 drills, Heaps completed 7-of-11 passes for 79 yards. Lark was 2-for-4 for 12 yards, and Nelson was 1-for-3 for zero yards. Tight end Marcus Mathews caught a 21-yard pass from Heaps on a third-and-long situation. ... The Cougars will take the day off today before resuming practice Friday. Saturday marks the end of spring drills, with a practice at LaVell Edwards Stadium at 1 p.m. It is open to the public.

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com