PROVO — This not how James Lark envisioned his career going at BYU.
The junior quarterback arrived in Provo in 2006 — after having been recruited by programs like Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Utah — brimming with high expectations after a prep career at Pine View High in St. George that saw him throw for 6,739 yards, the third-most in state history.
Since then, Lark has redshirted, dealt with an injury, served a mission to Russia, and seen limited action in a mop-up role, having completed 4-of-9 passes for 58 yards in his four years in the program.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride at BYU. I didn't come into college hoping to be a backup quarterback," Lark said. "But I've learned a lot about myself. I've learned a lot as a football player, but I've learned more outside of football. BYU's given me more than I could have ever imagined outside of football. It's something I'm grateful for and been happy about."
Lark took a big step up on the depth chart in recent weeks, moving from third-string to backup after Jake Heaps announced his plans to transfer.
"I wouldn't say there's really any difference," Lark said of his new role. "This is my fourth year now and especially these last two seasons, I just prepare to play no matter what spot I'm in. Not much has changed, just a few more reps. That's about it."
But Lark also knows that he's one play away from being on the field when BYU squares off against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 (10 a.m. MT, ESPN). The coaching staff, and starter Riley Nelson, have a lot of confidence in Lark.
"I know Lark doesn't have as many starts as Jake, but for any guy who's been in football for four years and is a redshirt junior, knows the ropes and is perfectly capable of performing if called upon," Nelson said.
"James is at the end of his fourth season," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "He's really progressed. It's been a position where he's been third this whole time. He hasn't had the volume of plays. Leading up to the first snap of the first game, he had progressed quite a ways. He's very capable. If needed, he can go in and do a very good job."
At the start of the season, Nelson was Heaps' backup before taking over the starting job midway through the season. Nelson said it's important to always work hard while waiting for a chance to play.
"James is doing well. He's a vet like me. This is our fourth college football season, and we've been out of high school football for quite a while," Nelson said. "Just like nothing really changed for me, at least internally, when I became the starter, nothing's changed for him now that he's moved up a spot on the depth chart.
"His preparation and work ethic was already at a very high level that prepared him for any opportunity to play. He's done well. He's very excited to help the team in whatever capacity that he can, as we all are. Going forward, I have all the trust and confidence in the world in James. He's a very good college quarterback. I'm excited for his opportunities."
Lark and Nelson, who graduated from high school the same year, have become close friends at BYU. In high school, the two were rivals, both putting up huge numbers on opposite ends of the state. Lark and Nelson met in the state championship in 2005, with Nelson's Logan High squad coming out on top.
"In high school we didn't know each other that well. We knew of each other," Lark said. "But we've become best friends here at BYU. We support each other no matter what."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall likes the effort he's seen from Lark all season long.
"James has been really competing and competing well from the very beginning," he said. "He had a great fall camp, to the point where we thought that he would have a great chance at possibly being the backup, the way he was competing. So I think this has been a breath of fresh air for him, just to be considered more in the mix now, to get more practice reps."
Lark's experience at BYU "hasn't been easy," Mendenhall added. "He's been in my office a number of times trying to find his place and acknowledge what his path might be and what opportunities he'll get. He's our backup quarterback and he's very good. It's hard to predict how it will play out.
"In this particular case, there are a lot of lessons for young kids out there that it doesn't always go perfectly but if you persevere until the end, sometimes things work in your favor. He's one play away from being our starting quarterback."
Asked if there are plans for Lark to play against Tulsa, Mendenhall said the coaching staff "won't make a special effort to put him in just because."
But, the coach added, "I'm comfortable with James, even though he hasn't played. He actually runs well, too. It would be fun to see him get an opportunity, if and when that happens, possibly in the bowl game. We'll have to see."
Armed Forces Bowl
Tulsa (8-4) vs. BYU (9-3)
Dec. 30, 10 a.m. MT
Ford Stadium, Dallas
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM