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

BYU's quarterback derby is dramatic — not because of who is ahead or behind, but because it's fluid instead of static.

After freshman Jake Heaps sprinted out of the blocks in spring drills, Riley Nelson made big strides to assert his athleticism. James Lark, five months from proselyting in St. Petersburg, Russia, got left behind a little.

But last week, on the day Bronco Mendenhall told reporters the other two had pulled "slightly" ahead of Lark, he excelled at that practice.

The key is this trio, as a group, is improving, competing and pushing one another in an exercise that will benefit each of them through August.

Although Heaps is still a kid and his high school class is preparing for graduation, he is the only one of the three who has played consecutive seasons, albeit a prep schedule. It shows in his mastery of fundamentals, reading coverages and his comfort level.

Nelson, who is built like a halfback and runs like a prototype Air Force option QB, is shedding his instincts to duck and run. He's committing himself to the pass and firing quick strikes, usually at his first option.

Lark, who came off his LDS mission with just 6 percent body fat, is close to breaking three key weightlifting marks for the position at BYU. He has tied the record for the clean, at 308 pounds; his bench press of 315 pounds is 10 from the all-time mark of 325; and his 405-pound squat is in range of the record of 435 pounds.

As spring football concludes this week, Nelson and Heaps are taking the majority of the snaps. Lark and Nelson are men, Heaps could use some more weight.

In the Norm Chow era, BYU had always benefited from quarterbacks with solid fundamentals they had obtained before walking on campus. Ty Detmer had Sonny Detmer.

Steve Sarkisian, John Walsh and Kevin Feterik had quarterback coach Steve Clarkson of Los Angeles.

Max Hall had his uncle, Danny White, and after John Beck's freshman year at BYU, he worked summers with former Stanford and Indianapolis head coach Rod Dowhower.

In BYU's current camp, that's the most glaring difference between Heaps and the other guys: his training.

Heaps has worked with Greg Barton in Oregon since the fifth grade, perfecting his footwork, delivery and skill sets. He even devoured flash cards for deciphering cover two, cover three and other pass defenses while in elementary school. Barton's other pupils include Boise State's Kellen Moore, former Cal and current Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and Tennessee's Eric Ainge.

It is little wonder Heaps earned MVP honors at the Elite Eleven camp this past summer in California.

With Nelson riding his superior athleticism, his biggest improvement is coming from building a better foundation, albeit late. He does not have Heaps' range nor the variety of passes, but he's been impressive the past seven days.

Nelson is a respected leader and force in the huddle and on the sideline. He's working hard to master his progressions after the snap.

Heaps, although young, did the smart thing after enrolling at BYU in January. He kept his mouth shut, didn't yell at receivers and cornerbacks.

He let his arm do the talking, and that got him respect from his elders, something Nelson cornered in January.

It is unfair to totally judge Lark this spring because of his fresh return from his church mission in December.

The astute Nelson can take over a QB meeting if coach Brandon Doman leaves the room — he's that tuned.

What's the bottom line heading to the conclusion of spring drills this week? If this were a front-line, war-torn battle zone and you needed someone to pick you up on his shoulder and pack you out of a foxhole, Lark is the man.

If you needed a medic to zig-zag across a field, dodge gun fire and shrapnel to reach you and save your life, Nelson is your man.

If you needed someone to take a grenade and chuck it 50 yards into a pillbox where a machine gun spits out lead, Heaps is your man.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com