Editor's note: First of a two-part series exploring the need to develop multiple quarterbacks.
PROVO — When BYU opened spring practices in early March, its roster was brimming with eight quarterbacks.
That number seems excessive, but recent years show that the Cougars have needed to use multiple QBs.
Since announcing its plans to go independent in August 2010, BYU has been dependent on more than one starting quarterback to get through a season. It's happened in seven of the past eight campaigns, and the Cougars have trotted out as many as three different starters in 2012 and 2017.
Only once during that time has BYU experienced an entire season with the same starting quarterback. That was in 2013, when Taysom Hill started all 13 games.
Meanwhile, Hill, who is No. 5 on the program's list of all-time leading rushers with 2,815 career yards, suffered four season-ending injuries — in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill takes a snap against Arizona at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Sept. 4, 2016. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Though first-year quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator Aaron Roderick wasn’t at BYU during those seasons, he understands the importance of getting multiple QBs ready to play. Plus, starting more than one quarterback during a season certainly isn't unique to BYU.
“We did a study a few years ago when I was coaching at Utah. Less than 20 percent of teams in the country will play the entire season with one guy,” Roderick said. “That’s just how it is. It’s rare to go through an entire season with just one quarterback.”
Since there is no telling when backup quarterbacks will be forced to take the field, it's imperative that coaches identify and develop solid options at that position.
“Guys have to be ready to play. That’s why sometimes when you have an established guy, and is the guy, competition behind him can wane a little bit,” Roderick said. “Right now, we have a situation where everyone’s pushing each other and raising each other’s level of play. Hopefully, a pecking order emerges in time. It will. It will happen.”
BYU’s current starting quarterback battle — which seemingly has been whittled down to senior Tanner Mangum, sophomore Joe Critchlow, junior Beau Hoge and true freshman Zach Wilson, in no particular order — got underway during spring ball and will continue to heat up during the summer. Meanwhile, another candidate, freshman Jaren Hall, has recently returned home from a mission. The coaching staff plans to name a starter in August.
Prior to this recent eight-year period marked by a spate of injuries, BYU enjoyed a five-year stretch of healthy and effective signal-callers.
From 2005-09 (64 games), BYU's starting quarterbacks missed only one start, meaning they started 98 percent of those games. The Cougars started only three different QBs during that period, posting an overall record of 49-15 (.765).
On the other hand, from 2010-17 (104 games), the quarterback that opened a season as the starter started in just 62 percent of those contests. Starters missed 38 percent of those games as a result of injuries (a total of 40 games). That number is even higher when figuring in starts scrapped due to ineffectiveness, as when Riley Nelson replaced Jake Heaps in 2011.
Hill accounts for 21 of those missed starts due to injury, not including the games he sat out in 2012 when he played in place of another injured dual-threat QB, Nelson, who missed a total of 15 starts in his career due to injury. The Cougars have started eight different quarterbacks during that stretch from 2010-2017, posting an overall record of 63-41 (.605).
BYU's dip in winning percentage, and general quarterback instability, could be attributed to playing tougher schedules — more games against Power 5 opponents — in the independence era. Or it could be attributed to implementing an offense that highlighted a running quarterback during many of those seasons. Or it could be attributed to just plain bad luck that produced a surfeit of fluke injuries.
BYU Cougars quarterback Jake Heaps (9) throws against UCF in Provo on Friday, Sept. 23, 2011. BYU won 24-17. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
It should also be noted that since 2010 the Cougars have seen several quarterbacks transfer — Brad Sorensen, Jake Heaps, Ammon Olsen, Alex Kuresa and Billy Green. Meanwhile, BYU replaced its offensive coordinator and changed its offensive scheme multiple times — from Robert Anae (2010) to Brandon Doman (2011-12), back to Anae (2013-15), to Ty Detmer (2016-17) to Jeff Grimes (2018).
But BYU enjoyed remarkable QB stability before that. Over two seasons, from 2005-06, John Beck started 24 of 25 games. During the 2006 season, Beck suffered an ankle injury at Boston College and missed the next game at home against Utah State. Jason Beck replaced John Beck and engineered a 38-0 blanking of the Aggies.
John Beck returned the following week and though he still wasn't at full strength, the senior led BYU to a big upset on the road of nationally ranked TCU, one of the signature wins during the Bronco Mendenhall era. The Cougars finished with an 11-2 record in ’06.
From 2007-09, three-year starter Max Hall started all 39 games for BYU and posted a 32-7 record.
Did the Cougars' style of play factor into that run of quarterback stability?
“The offense Max and I ran, we got the ball out of our hands quick,” John Beck said. “Did we take hits? Yeah, of course we took hits. But there wasn’t a lot of holding on to the ball where you take huge hits. We still played injured. Max had to play injured. We were fortunate not to have any major injuries.”
There’s a strong correlation between consistency at the quarterback position and success, Beck added. It’s no coincidence that BYU enjoyed three 11-win seasons and one 10-win campaign, from 2006-09.
“It’s huge for continuity and it’s huge for the quarterback. That guy needs to be healthy for practice reps and for the games,” Beck said. “One of my coaches in the NFL said, ‘You want to be a better starter? Then you need a lot of reps as the starter.’ It’s the truth. You want someone to improve in all the situations a starter has to deal with. He needs a ton of reps as the starter.
"When somebody’s battling injuries — and I’ve seen it all too often — it’s really hard when you have a revolving door at quarterback to have any type of sustained continuity and chemistry on the offense," he continued. "Usually every quarterback brings something different. That’s not to say that if a starter goes down that a backup can’t come in and succeed. I’ve seen that.”
Coaches must balance preparing a starter while simultaneously preparing his backup in the event that the starter goes down with an injury. Or when the starter isn't getting the job done, which is what happened when Nelson replaced Heaps.
“The backups have got to be ready. That’s the hard part about college football now. There’s not enough time for the coaches to be with the players. When time is limited, how do you prepare your starter?” Beck said. “You’ve got to give your starter as many reps as you can. It’s a big thing that coaches have to do dividing up reps. You can’t spend too much time on your backup, otherwise your starter is not getting the reps he needs to prepare himself. It’s a tough deal. It makes it hard when your starter goes down.”
As for the BYU 2018 quarterback race that will be settled in August, Beck would like to see the coaches select a starter as soon as possible after fall camp opens.
“You don’t want this quarterback battle to linger on too much in camp,” Beck said, “because you want to give your starter as many reps as possible.”
Yes, it’s rare that the Game One starter survives an entire season. The backup is only one play away, one injury away, from becoming the starter.
Roderick has delivered that message to his group of quarterbacks.
“I’ve been pretty blunt with them about the fact that this is big-time college football. We’ve got some tough decisions to make. This is a production-oriented business. We have to get the job done or the next guy’s up," Roderick said. "It’s really difficult to divvy up reps in a completely fair way. In fact, it’s almost impossible.
"I’ve asked each guy to be prepared to make his reps count. When you get your chance, you’ve got to go in there and be prepared to show that you know what you’re doing and where to go with the football and how to run the team. That’s been my message — a sense of urgency — that we’ve got to win games now. Be ready to play now. I want to put a little bit of stress on them to be prepared when they go in there and make the most of their opportunities.”