PROVO — On Monday, as BYU staged its first practice in preparation for next week's Poinsettia Bowl, the Cougars' two senior quarterbacks took snaps.
Both Riley Nelson, who started most of the season but is still hampered by a rib injury that sidelined him for the regular-season finale against New Mexico State, and backup James Lark, who threw for 384 yards and six touchdowns against New Mexico State, saw action.
"Riley's not healthy enough right now to be considered as the starter yet," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "At this point, we have to plan on James working and going forward and then wait to see where Riley catches up. We've got time."
"He's not 100 percent yet," offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said of Nelson. "James started today. Riley came in and practiced and they went back and forth. It's kind of created a little quarterback competition out there, which is positive, healthy and good for the team right now."
Certainly, it's an unusual situation. Nelson and Lark are close friends, and now, for their final collegiate game, they are battling for the starting job when the Cougars (7-5) face San Diego State (9-3) on Dec. 20 in San Diego.
"Riley and I, we've been handling this for a long time," Lark said. "We just go out and play. Whatever the coaches tell us to do, we go out and do it. Whatever happens, happens."
For both players, this game means a lot.
"Extremely important," Nelson said. "I haven't gone through what I've gone through to sputter out toward the end. I want to finish, and I want to finish strong. Hopefully it can work out that way."
"It's important to me. I want to end my BYU career with a victory, whether I play or not," Lark said. "Regardless of that situation, I'm going to give it my best effort and make sure I go out without any regrets."
Nelson, who missed two games in the middle of the season due to a back injury, suffered a rib injury against San Jose State on Nov. 17.
"These last two weeks were good to heal up," Nelson said. "I'm still tender and sore. I haven't been fully medically cleared, but hopefully by the end of this week I will be. I threw today and took reps and it felt pretty good. My legs feel really good. I'm just waiting for that rib to heal up."
Asked if he could play today, Nelson said he could, adding that he's confident that he'll be ready to play by Dec. 20.
It makes for an interesting scenario for BYU's coaching staff.
"These two guys are veteran guys and they are leading us very well," Doman said of Nelson and Lark. "We'll make a decision on the quarterbacks. Coach (Mendenhall) will decide on what we want to do and then we'll listen to the doctors and trainers. But I have great confidence in James. We've played Riley a lot and as you know, we have confidence in him. So either one of them would do a great job, I think, with the game plan we have and in the bowl game."
MENDENHALL AND COLORADO: A week after BYU concluded the regular season, Mendenhall was rumored to be a candidate for the head coaching job at Colorado.29 comments on this story
When asked about that during a Poinsettia Bowl news conference last week in San Diego, Mendenhall told the Deseret News: "I didn't express any interest, haven't been contacted, didn't interview and didn't know I was a candidate."
But the following day, Mendenhall said, after former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones — who had interviewed for the Colorado position — turned down the job, Mendenhall was contacted by Colorado officials.
"There became interest after I was asked (that question), after Cincinnati's coach decided to do something else," Mendenhall explained. "There was no interview. There was interest expressed, but there was no interview."
Added Mendenhall: "I'm really happy here (at BYU)."