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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
BYU quarterback Jake Heaps poses after an interview during BYU's media day at the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo Tuesday, July 12, 2011.

PROVO — Jake Heaps is ready and anxious to be The Man.

It's amazing the difference a year has made for BYU's quarterback position.

From then until today, the gap in comfort zone, chemistry, confidence and execution looms large as Bronco Mendenhall opens fall camp.

How so? Well, it is the philosophical and geological equivalent of the distance between the Grand Canyon and Martha's Vineyard. A year ago, BYU dwelt in an extreme climate full of risk; today it is a comfortable, competitive colony with visible fences for security.

A year ago, the BYU quarterback position needed a clear leader in the post-Max Hall era, but instead the Cougars staged a nomadic offensive plan with a confused identity by placing Heaps and Riley Nelson in a combo-QB role.

Today, Heaps has the undisputed job as starter.

The Cougars open fall camp today with their QB position definable, uncomplicated and Heaps holding on to an irrefutable mandate to lead.

A year ago, when Nelson and Heaps split repetitions in spring, summer, fall camp and a month's worth of games, it cheated both of them, as BYU's staff conducted a Game of Thrones: It was more important to pay homage to ideology of liege lords than develop a starting QB.

A year ago, BYU entered fall camp four months away from dismantling its offensive staff.

"It was a chaotic situation," said Heaps, who today is no longer a teenager but is now 20, married and has put on 15 extra pounds of muscle in his chest, arms and legs.

Heaps, who finished the 2010 season as the starter when Riley had surgery after the Florida State game, is in an entirely different mental and physical zone than a year ago. A year ago, two-thirds of the team refused to accept a true freshman as their offensive leader and lined up behind the older Nelson, with whom they had built a relationship.

It was a season of anxiety for Heaps. And Nelson.

Today Heaps has had some time to prove himself to his teammates. When he helped steer the Cougars to their most explosive offensive performance ever in a bowl game against UTEP last December, one could say he earned his chevrons.

It wasn't just a gamble for BYU's coaching staff to use two QBs; it was a disaster. As wobbly as the staff was at the end of last year, it didn't help to have a full-blown QB controversy.

It was both good and bad for Heaps, and today he says it made him a better man and player.

He now has cred with his team.

"They had time to see my work ethic, my actions, gain their trust and respect, and it was then they let you take over," Heaps told ESPN's Ivan Maisel in July.

"Just going through a full season, getting the experience he did will add to his confidence," predicted senior wide receiver McKay Jacobson. "He's always been a guy with a lot of confidence. With a year under his belt, he's going to be that much more comfortable with things, and I think he'll progress the same way he did last year throughout the year."

Today, Heaps will lead a different offensive philosophy under a new offensive coordinator with two new faces on the coaching staff on that side of the ball in running backs coach Joe DuPaix and wide receivers coach Ben Cahoon.

A year ago, two completely different quarterbacks ran an offense that required tailoring to each of their respective talents, trained by splitting time. Today it is one offense and one set of skills using all the time to polish BYU's arsenal, timing and execution.

Today, it isn't a twins' dance, a two-headed freak show forcing cockeyed allegiance from teammates.

"He's good. He's a leader. He's got a ton of 'want-to.' He can throw it around," Doman told reporters a couple of weeks ago.

"The players look up to him and respect him now. It's taken some time, but they know who to lean on and who to look to. He's stepped forward to be the leader. Completion percentage-wise, he's as good as any quarterback we've had in spring practice.

"He's understanding the offense and putting the ball where it needs to be," Doman said. "The timing, decision-making and accuracy, all that kind of stuff, is proving that he will be a great quarterback here. That allows BYU to be really good, as we've seen in the past."

Both Heaps and Nelson suffered through a great deal in a tough early-season schedule in 2010. That didn't help, either.

It was Heaps that finished as the starter and led the Cougars to a 5-1 mark in their final six games. BYU's only loss in that stretch came at Utah, which blocked a potential game-winning field-goal attempt at the final gun. A coaching decision took the ball out of his hands when in scoring position. The season-finale was a 52-24 bowl win over UTEP.

"With more reps, the more our offense was able to grow," Heaps said of the second half of the season. "We built chemistry and were clicking more. We were really able to show what we were capable of doing."

Heaps will receive help from four returning offensive linemen, and all of his key receivers, running backs and tight ends also return.

"I wouldn't trade what I learned last year for anything," said Heaps.

Heaps' greatest lesson learned?

"I've learned not to take anything for granted." His high school teams went 40-2 and won three state titles. He cannot ever take winning as a given.

A year ago, Mendenhall allowed his football team to grow up by suffering through a gauntlet of sorts in order to get better today.

We shall see if that sacrifice worked.

Email: dharmon@desnews.com

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