PROVO — As fall camp opened last August, BYU's Riley Nelson was a forgotten man, buried under an avalanche of hype surrounding starting quarterback Jake Heaps. He served as the backup QB and the gunner on the anonymous punt coverage team.
Nelson was coming back from shoulder surgery that cut short his 2010 season, which he began as the starter.
As of last August, it appeared his career as a BYU quarterback could be over.
But then the junior from Logan launched his improbable, personal comeback when he rallied the Cougars to a dramatic fourth-quarter win over Utah State, a victory that essentially salvaged the season. Nelson started the next five games before he suffered a collapsed lung and a rib injury in the first quarter against Idaho in mid-November.
That set up Nelson's second remarkable comeback. After being sidelined for the New Mexico State game, Nelson made what he and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman called a "miraculous" recovery in time for the regular-season finale at Hawaii, where Nelson threw for a career-high 363 yards and three touchdowns.
Now, as BYU gets set for the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 30 (10 a.m., MT, ESPN) against Tulsa, Heaps is transferring to Kansas, and Nelson is not only the Cougars' starter, but he's also their leader.
No Hollywood filmmaker could have scripted this.
"He's an animal. He's such a freak," wide receiver Ross Apo said of Nelson, with admiration in his voice, after the Hawaii game. "You probably couldn't even tell that he punctured his lungs a couple weeks ago. … Every time Riley gets on the field, it's always a spark to the team."
For Nelson, the last 14 months have been an instructional experience.
"I've had a blast this past year," he said. "It's been very educational, but not in an academic sense. I've learned a lot about myself. I've learned a lot about life. I've learned a lot about dealing with adversity, and I've also learned a lot about dealing with success, both of which are challenges in their individual rights. I've learned about willpower and rehab from injury and all those things."
As a starter this season, Nelson's only loss came at the hands of nationally ranked TCU. Nelson was responsible for costly turnovers in that game, but he also displayed his mobility and a knack for making plays against an athletic, stingy Horned Frog defense.
"I thought after the TCU game, we were going to see one of two things with Riley — we'd either see him take it to the next level and become great, or just be an average guy," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "He'd played really well, then we played a really good opponent and he made some errors. He did some fantastic things in that TCU game. He probably gave us as good of a chance to beat those guys as we've had in three or four years. But he made some costly decisions that probably cost us that football game. What I'm hoping to see now is what we did in the Hawaii game — secure the football, still make the plays that he makes, but secure the football and have efficient production against no matter who we're playing now."
Nelson has one more season remaining, and Doman is counting on Nelson taking his performance to an even higher level.
"I think the best quarterbacks at BYU over the (long) haul, once they've been through those tough obstacles, the great ones rise to that next level because they've seen what needed to happen," Doman said. "I believe that's what occurred for him in the Hawaii game. I'm hoping now that it escalates through his senior year and that he finishes as one of the very good ones."
Though his body has taken a beating this season, partly due to his aggressive playing style, Nelson hasn't allowed that to hold him back.
As for his performance at Hawaii, he credits his teammates.
"It's easy to play good as a quarterback when you have so many people around you making plays, obviously, with all of our wide receivers playing as well as they did," Nelson said. "Our running game started off slow, but we finished up with 150 yards rushing. In my mind, it wasn't personally anything I did. Our guys stepped up. I knew I was going to be in good enough condition to play. Now, playing with pain is something different than playing with an injury that makes it so you can't do what you can do. I knew that I would be able to do everything I needed to do to play and put us in a position to be successful. I also knew that it was going to be painful. Knowing that fact going into the game, it wasn't much different than any other Saturday."
During the past year, Nelson also learned a lot about patience, and about maintaining a good attitude while sitting on the bench.
"Naturally it's not the ideal situation. Everyone pictures themselves as the starter and as the guy," Nelson said. "But unfortunately, at the position of quarterback, there's only one guy. If we were all running backs and wide receivers, we'd all be getting at least a few reps here and there. At quarterback, it's all or nothing. That's what can be difficult about being low on the depth chart, especially at quarterback. But you realize that you're one play away. You stay prepared and you're right there if you get your opportunity and you take advantage of it."
Nelson has lived that.
And, next weekend, he will make his first appearance in a bowl game, something he's waited a long time to do.
"I feel very fortunate and excited to be playing in a bowl game. At BYU, it's kind of commonplace to play in a bowl, but it's not like that at every program," said Nelson, who transferred from Utah State. "I couldn't play in the bowl game last year because I was hurt. In 2009, I watched it from the sidelines as the 50-mile-an-hour winds were freezing me down to the bone (in the Las Vegas Bowl against Oregon State). It's a great honor. But I have been around college football for a long time and I realize the biggest of games, it doesn't change anything about you. You have to maintain consistency in your preparation, in your attitude toward the game and definitely in your play. You can't do anything special. I'm extremely excited to be playing in it, but that doesn't change much of my approach toward the game."
Nelson's consistent approach has resulted in two incredible comebacks. And it's also paid big dividends — both for him, and for the Cougars.
Cougars on the air
Armed Forces Bowl
Tulsa (8-4) vs. BYU (9-3)
Dec. 30, 10 a.m., MT
Ford Stadium, Dallas
TV: ESPN Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM