A left-handed backup quarterback with a very average arm and penchant for running the ball comes off the bench to replace a struggling drop-back passer. Relying as much on his rushes as his passes, soon the new guy singlehandedly engineers a stunning comeback win to save his team's 2011 season.
This southpaw signal-caller slings the pigskin in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. His matinee-idol good looks frame a chiseled physique. He plays on national TV, and developed maturity belying his years while volunteering in 2008 for an overseas Christian ministry. But because he is unmarried and adheres to a faith that frowns upon premarital sex, he's also a sought-after bachelor who sleeps alone every night.
Who is this young man, you ask? Well, it depends which side of the Rockies you're looking at — because while the obvious answer is Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos, every one of those descriptors also applies to BYU's Riley Nelson. Indeed, although Tebow (a participant in his father's evangelical ministry in the Philippines) may be playing on a bigger stage than Nelson (an LDS missionary in Spain from 2007-09), the sets of circumstances surrounding these two quarterbacks bear an uncanny resemblance to each other.
Until recently, Tebow and Nelson each backed up a teammate with a howitzer arm — Denver's Kyle Orton and BYU's Jake Heaps, respectively. And despite being in the lineup for only a couple weeks of the 2011 season, Tebow and Nelson have both already conjured enough magic on the gridiron to produce improbable wins that required some luck and bordered on miraculous.
On Sunday in Miami, Tebow started his first game of the season. For three and a half quarters he displayed no competence whatsoever: Tebow was 4-of-14 for 40 yards passing with 5:23 left in the fourth quarter, at which time Denver trailed 15-0. But then, improbably, Tebow caught fire and led the Broncos to two scores in the waning moments by going 9-of-13 for 121 passing yards and two touchdowns. The second touchdown wouldn't have happened if not for the Broncos recovering an onsides kick following the first score, and a Miami fumble in overtime set up Denver's game-winning field goal for a final score of 18-15.
Nelson's signature moment came Sept. 30 against Utah State. The junior quarterback entered the game midway through the third quarter after Heaps went 11-of-25 passing. With two minutes left in the game the Aggies led BYU, 24-20. Then Utah State sacked Nelson at his own 2-yard-line. As the clock steadily perspired precious seconds, the junior quarterback restored order to his offense and sparked a drive that covered 98 yards during a stunning eight plays. With only 15 seconds remaining on the clock, Nelson threw a 13-yard touchdown pass that was deflected and corralled in the end zone by an unintended receiver. Against all odds, the Cougars somehow won, 27-24.
Look, nobody is suggesting that Riley Nelson is approaching the rarefied air of Tim Tebow. That'd be tone-deaf blasphemy because Tebow, 24, is one of the greatest college football players ever, a Heisman Trophy winner with two national championships at Florida and a career record of 35-6 as a starter for the Gators. The 23-year-old Nelson, on the other hand, is merely running roughshod over a litany of state schools with subpar football programs: Utah State, San Jose State, Oregon State and Idaho State.
Although Nelson's spirited scrambles and inspirational improvisation are sights to behold — at 554 yards, he already ranks fourth all-time at BYU for career rushing by a quarterback — nobody will ever confuse Nelson's ground game with the 2,947 rushing yards and 57 rushing touchdowns that Tebow amassed during a four-year tour de force of willful, physical domination over the top tier of college football.
Tebow may cut an imposing figure — GQ magazine once famously described him as "six feet three and 245 pounds, all thick polygons and smooth flat planes and inescapable corn-fed handsomeness" — and BYU's new field general is a much more pedestrian 6-feet and 196 pounds. However, there exists one physical attribute in which Nelson absolutely owns Tebow: hair. Nelson's layered locks have inspired YouTube videos, while Tebow's 'do is so blandly utilitarian that it conjures images of Brenda Warner circa the St. Louis Rams' run to the Super Bowl in 2000.
Haircuts aside, all signs seem to be pointing to Riley Nelson's quarterback ceiling being that of a de facto Tebow Lite. While being called a poor man's anything doesn't initially sound like a flattering term of endearment, Nelson would do well to keep performing like Tim Tebow — both on and off the field.
EMAIL: [email protected]