Our team and our coaching staff trust Riley because of who he is. If you happen to be trailing and there's a long field, I think the program itself just believes he's going to find some way to help you win the game. —Bronco Mendenhall, coach
PROVO — It's no secret that, historically, the BYU football program has experienced great success when a senior quarterback is at the controls.
The starting QB this year will be Riley Nelson, a fact that coach Bronco Mendenhall is thrilled about as the Cougars open spring practices Monday.
"I'm not only excited that it's a senior, but I'm excited that it's Riley," Mendenhall said.
In the fall of 2010, Nelson was selected as BYU's starter, and shared time with former Cougar Jake Heaps until Nelson suffered a season-ending injury. Last year, Nelson became the starter after taking over for an ineffective Heaps, who has since transferred to Kansas.
BYU posted a 10-3 record in its inaugural season as an independent, and Nelson helped rally the Cougars to victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl on a late drive and game-winning touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman.
"Riley was, even two years ago, a player that I felt was most ready to lead the team and be the starter, even though Jake took over when Riley was hurt," Mendenhall said. "But our team and our coaching staff trust Riley because of who he is. If you happen to be trailing and there's a long field, I think the program itself just believes he's going to find some way to help you win the game … That it's him (as the starter) really has an air of excitement that our team can feel because of his leadership."
Nelson is one of many upperclassmen that Mendenhall is counting on to lead this year's team. One of the main objectives during spring drills, he said, is "to make sure we embed the culture of BYU football in this next team."
The Cougar coaching staff is planning on another senior QB, James Lark, being Nelson's backup.
"He's trained so hard, and he's in great physical shape," Mendenhall said. "This spring will be very important for him in terms of maintaining his role that he currently has."
After Lark, BYU has several young quarterbacks in the fold, including Taysom Hill and Ammon Olsen, who have recently returned from missions, and Alex Kuresa. Meanwhile, Jason Munns will be out this spring due to foot surgery.
"There are younger players coming on. However, if James Lark is still the best player behind Riley, we'll use him as a backup," Mendenhall said. "If any of the other quarterbacks have a skill set in terms of running the football or maybe doing something else, then we might be able to get them some time on the field in a unique package that would help with some of the experience."
Other positions Mendenhall will be looking hard at this spring include the defensive secondary, linebacker, wide receiver and running back.
Jordan Johnson and Robbie Buckner will battle for the starting field cornerback position vacated by Corby Eason, who has graduated. The Cougars are also looking to replace free safety Travis Uale.
"That's a critical position on our team," Mendenhall said. "So there's a chance that between Daniel Sorensen, Joe Sampson and Mike Hague, those three are the frontrunners, you'll see two of those three players on the field at the same time at safety. We're looking to find the best combination of safeties."
Inside linebacker Spencer Hadley has been moved from inside linebacker to outside linebacker to replace Jordan Pendleton, Mendenhall said. In another position change, linebacker Austen Jorgensen has been switched to fullback.
At running back, the Cougars will look to replace JJ Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya. Returning are Joshua Quezada and Mike Alisa. "And (there's) a player that transferred over from rugby, who's one of the best rugby players in the world, Paul Lasike," Mendenhall said. "We'll have a nice running back battle going on as well."
Fullback Iona Pritchard, who suffered a serious leg injury during a scrimmage last August, is still not healthy enough to participate in spring drills. But Mendenhall is hopeful that Pritchard will be ready by next fall.
And O'Neill Chambers, who was suspended from the team during the 2010 team, and was not part of the program in 2011, will be able to practice this spring with the Cougars. How he performs, on and off the field, will determine if he will be able to play this fall, Mendenhall said.
The Cougars will hold 15 practices through March 30, which will mark Alumni Day. The spring game will be staged on March 24 at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
"Our players and coaches are excited to start practices again," Mendenhall said. "We have a lot of senior leadership, I believe we have a strong team coming back and looking forward to continuing to improve our program … Our loyalties and friendships are so strong with our current team, you can't wait to get back with them. We're all excited."