SALT LAKE CITY — BYU’s mid-season switch to a backup quarterback seemed to pay off in last weekend’s rout of Hawaii. With freshman Zach Wilson starting in place of senior Tanner Mangum, the Cougars scored a season-high 49 points. The kid, who’s barely 19, threw three touchdown passes and ran for another in his starting debut.
BYU was 3-3 and the offense was in a rut when the QB switch was made. This is not the first time BYU has turned to the backup quarterback in an attempt to improve the offense, but how often does it succeed on a sustained basis? As one reader asked in an email: “Has a QB switch, mid-season, ever made much of a difference at BYU?” In other words, as the reader put it, is a bad offense just a bad offense, no matter who is playing quarterback?
BYU coaches have rarely switched starting quarterbacks during the season other than for injury, but when they have, how effective has it been in improving the team? Here is a look at those occasions (spoiler alert: The change has worked about half the time).
BYU was 0-3 and losing to New Mexico 12-0 late in the third quarter when coaches reluctantly turned to sophomore Gifford Nielsen, a Provo native who had started as a freshman on BYU’s basketball team. He was the third-string quarterback behind Mark Giles and Jeff Duva, but in this game Giles was sidelined by a hip injury and Duva was ineffective. In a performance no one saw coming, Nielsen completed 10 of 12 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a 16-15 win.
As Lee Benson recounted in his book, “And They Came to Pass,” BYU’s assistant coaches still didn’t want Nielsen in the lineup the following week. While driving with Nielsen to a radio show, head coach LaVell Edwards told Nielsen, “Not everybody wants me to start you.” He paused, then said, “But I’m going to start you anyway.” Quarterback coach Dewey Warren continued to lobby for Giles as his starter, but Edwards said, “I might have been a single-wing center, but I’m not that stupid. Here’s a local kid who at least has done something … We’ll go with Gifford.”
With Nielsen at quarterback, the Cougars won six of eight games, and he went on to become a star the next two seasons and a longtime backup quarterback in the NFL. This was obviously a case in which a change at quarterback made an immediate and sustained difference. The Cougars were 9-3 and 9-2 the next two seasons with Nielsen under center and it launched an era in which Edwards’ teams became a national force.
Steve Lindsley became the first returned missionary and first walk-on to start at quarterback for Edwards. With Lindsley at quarterback, the Cougars won seven of their first 11 games, but expectations were so high by then — BYU had won 35 of 39 games the previous three seasons — that they were impossible to meet, and as a result, the most popular man in town was the backup quarterback.
That was Bob Jensen, who was a prototype of Taysom Hill, who would come along 25 years later. Like Hill, Jensen was big, fast and strong and came from a small town. Like Hill, he was a mediocre passer and an excellent runner. The week after a 10-3 loss to San Diego State in the 11th game, Jensen replaced Lindsley as the starter against Air Force. He completed 11 of 20 passes for 258 yards and one touchdown, ran 12 times for 98 yards, and BYU won 23-3. A week later, in a 31-10 season-ending loss at UCLA, he threw three interceptions, ran for eight yards on 10 carries, averaged four yards per pass attempt and was relieved by Mike Young.
The switch to a backup made no difference. Lindsley had a solid pass efficiency rating of 129.7 despite having more interceptions than touchdown passes. He had thrown for 2,247 yards and completed 63 percent of his passes. BYU had enjoyed years of stability at quarterback, but the '86 season was the beginning of shuffling quarterbacks the next few years.
Jensen began the season as the starter and he opened with the finest passing performance of his career in a 27-17 loss to Pittsburgh, completing 26 of 48 passes 317 yards and two touchdowns; he also was sacked seven times and threw an interception. In games against TCU and Hawaii he was ineffective and was replaced by Sean Covey, a Provo High freshman. Heading into the eighth game with a 4-3 record, BYU made Covey the starter. He kept the job the rest of the season and won five of six games, not counting a come-from-behind win he delivered against Hawaii. The promotion of the backup improved the team’s performance. His starting job lost, Jensen skipped his senior year and tried out for the Canadian Football League.
Covey began the season as the starter, but for the third year in a row the starter had a kid nipping at his heels — Ty Detmer, a redshirt freshman from Texas. The season opener against Wyoming was a nightmare. Covey completed only five of 12 passes for 35 yards, was sacked four times and left the game with a concussion. Detmer was no better, completing nine of 26 passes for 133 yards, four interceptions and five sacks. Covey retained his starting job all season, but Detmer replaced him against UTEP, Hawaii, San Diego State, Utah and finally Colorado in the Freedom Bowl, leading come-from-behind victories in three of those games.
As is often the case, the backup QB was the most popular man in town, especially after an injury to Covey forced BYU to start Detmer against New Mexico, and the kid proceeded to throw for 333 yards and five touchdowns in a 65-0 rout. Everything Covey did from then on was measured against that performance, and he had no chance, but really there wasn’t much difference between the two statistically. Remarkably, they had identical stats in completion percentage (54.2), yards per attempt (8.2), TD passes (13) and interceptions (10). The biggest difference: Covey had thrown 319 passes, Detmer 153.
The drama ended in the Freedom Bowl when Detmer took over in the third quarter, and rallied BYU from a 14-7 deficit to a 20-17 win over Colorado. The following season, the job was Detmer’s and of course he went on to win the Heisman Trophy and set dozens of NCAA records.
The quarterback changes of the ’92 season were forced by injury, but it’s included here because a quarterback controversy was shaping up before the injuries occurred and because it illustrates how difficult it is for coaches to evaluate quarterbacks even after months of watching them in practice. Freshman John Walsh was the team’s starting quarterback and went the distance in the first two games, but in a 17-10 loss to UCLA he was ineffective and was relieved by Steve Clements, who was ineffective himself. Walsh returned to the field only to suffer a season-ending injury. A week later, Clements suffered a season-ending injury.
Ryan Hancock, the third-string quarterback and a pitcher on the baseball team, got the starting job by default and led BYU to seven wins in eight games, the lone loss coming at Notre Dame. Hancock was golden, but in the regular-season finale he suffered a torn ACL that not only ended his season but also his football career. He decided there was too much at stake to risk his baseball future so he quit football. He eventually played one season in the major leagues, compiling a 4-1 record for the California Angels, before accepting a contract to play in Japan. In the Honolulu Bowl, Tom Young became the team’s fourth starting quarterback of the season, and the Cougars lost 23-20 to Kansas. Clearly, a change at quarterback made a difference, BYU was 1-4 with Hancock on the bench and 7-1 with him on the field.
Bret Engemann, another Provo native, regained the starting job he had lost two years earlier because of injuries and Brandon Doman. Engemann opened the season with two outstanding performances — victories over Syracuse and Hawaii — but in losses the next two games he played poorly and was replaced and a pattern began. Lance Pendleton, Todd Mortensen and Matt Berry all came on in relief at some point in game situations. Berry wound up winning the starting job for the second half of the season, but the move did not really affect the team’s play. BYU was 5-7 for the season with Engemann winning three games, Berry two. Berry’s pass efficiency was 121.23, Engemann’s 109.24. Both of them threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
Ignoring all conventional wisdom, BYU named two starting quarterbacks — junior Riley Nelson and freshman Jake Heaps in 2010. The job-share plan lasted three games and then Nelson suffered a season-ending injury and Heaps started the rest of the season. BYU finished with a 7-6 record, but won five of its last six. That made Heaps the starter for 2011, but in the third game — a 54-10 loss to Utah — he was benched in favor of Nelson. In the sixth game, Nelson relieved Heaps again and rallied the team from a 24-13 deficit to a 27-24 win over Utah State. A quarterback controversy was on. Nelson took over as the starter for seven of the remaining eight games — he missed the New Mexico game with an injury — and won six of them, including the Armed Forces Bowl.
The change to the backup quarterback probably made a difference. Riley was a much better passer than Heaps. He won the most important statistical battles — yards per attempt (8.5 to 5.8) and TD passes to interceptions (19-7 for Nelson, 9-8 for Heaps. Nelson’s pass efficiency was a brilliant 152.93 to Heaps’ 110.98. Heaps transferred to Kansas after the season.
Nelson was named the starter again, but there was another kid to worry him — Taysom Hill. In the fourth game against Boise State, Nelson, hampered by a bad back, threw three interceptions (including a pick-six) and was replaced by Hill in the third quarter. Hill scored the only offensive TD of the game on a 4-yard run. He was named the starter the next two games.64 comments on this story
Hill ran for 165 yards and two TDs in a 47-0 win over Hawaii and it appeared he had made a permanent claim on the job. A week later he ran and passed for 315 yards in a 6-3 win over Utah State, but another QB controversy was cut short when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in that game. Nelson returned as the starter the next five games, winning two, but injured his ribs against San Jose State. Third stringer James Lark threw six TD passes in a win over New Mexico State and then led BYU to 23-6 win over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.