PROVO — As a BYU quarterback, Riley Nelson encountered a vast array of experiences, from transferring from one school to another, to being embroiled in quarterback battles, to being part of the first Cougar team to play an independent schedule, to directing come-from-behind victories and throwing game-winning touchdowns, to dealing with injuries.
Now, Nelson will rely on those experiences to help BYU football fans see and understand the game in a different way.
BYU announced Tuesday that Nelson will be the new game analyst for football radio broadcasts on the Nu Skin BYU Sports Network.
“The breadth of his experience really stands out. It’s one of the great things about Riley,” said Greg Wrubell, the Voice of the Cougars. “It was a really unique playing journey for him at BYU. Nothing was handed to him. He knew he’d have to compete even though he knew he could be a star at Utah State but he chose a tough path by coming to BYU. He was able to navigate it and excel while doing it. He battled through every possible circumstance. I like the fact he battled for everything and through everything.”
Nelson succeeds Marc Lyons, who had been the BYU radio color commentator for 38 years and retired at the end of the 2018 season.
“First and foremost, I’m extremely excited. The legacy that Marc left in the booth and to do something for 38 years and do it well enough for them to keep you around for 38 years is a singular accomplishment,” said Nelson, whose full-time job is in the insurance industry. “The reason why I wanted to throw my hat in the ring when I heard Marc might be hanging up the mic is this is something I do anyway. You can ask my wife or my family or people that sit around me when I go to games at LaVell Edwards Stadium. I’m already doing commentary so you might as well put it into a microphone and see what an audience thinks.”
When he was a kid growing up in Cache Valley, Nelson regularly attended Utah State athletic events. His grandfather, Rod Tueller, coached the Aggie basketball team and later served as the school’s athletic director. When Nelson was in his early teen years, Tueller became a radio analyst for USU hoops games.
“For years, my grandpa did color on the radio,” he said. “That put in my mind the idea it was something you could do.”
Wrubell likes what Nelson brings to the broadcast booth.
“I’ve always felt that quarterbacks make great analysts because they have a sense for both sides of the ball. They were offensive players but they almost have to know the other side of the ball as well as their own to excel at the position,” he said. “Riley’s ability to interpret what’s going on on both sides of the ball will really be an asset. He’s smart, he’s charismatic, he’s a good communicator. He was tenacious as a player and I know he’ll be tenacious as a broadcaster in terms of learning all he needs to learn and doing all he needs to do to fill this position at a high level.”
For Nelson, this new job is a chance to reconnect with the sport he loves.
“You spend much of your life where football was a major component and then it kinds of ends abruptly. All former players look for different avenues to stay engaged in the game,” he said. “Selfishly, this is a chance to be part of BYU football again. I’ll be prepping for the broadcast, watching films and studying scouting reports. It’s not like being a player but I’m still going through the same prep and then there’s a performance on game day. Much different arena. But it’s scratching that itch that you as a former player, it’s hard to fill that void. It’s being part of the game day experience again.”
Nelson’s goal as a broadcaster is “to not only provide a player’s perspective, but I also hope to provide a broader context in the pre-game and post-game shows, of what it’s like to be part of a program in independence. I was part of the program when we stepped into independence to play front-loaded schedules. Some felt we didn’t meet expectations. That’s the story of BYU in independence. We have all these close games and can’t seem to win them. I want to provide context of what it’s like to be a player in that situation.
“Most fans are result-oriented. That’s the fun part of being a fan. In the 10-15 seconds between plays, I hope to provide some whys," Nelson continued. "It’s third-and-8 and they threw the ball for five yards and now they’re punting. Why would you ever throw a pass for five yards on third-and-8? Well, the defense lined up in a shell coverage, meaning anything beyond the sticks would be double-covered. You look there first, you come to the underneath coverage and you realize all you need is one broken tackle to get the first down. That’s the thought process instead of, ‘Man, that was a dumb call.’ It’s providing the thought process behind the scheming and game planning that goes on from the coaching staff and players.”
While Nelson doesn’t have any in-game broadcasting experience, his experience analyzing BYU football on various radio shows over the years has helped.
“There was no formal run-throughs or tryouts when going through the process with Greg. There was a series of meetings to get a feel for my personality and ability and if, logistically, it was going to work for me," Nelson said. “Greg was evaluating a handful of us. I offered up stuff I do in radio interviews and analytics of a game so he could get a feel for how I think. Greg didn’t request that of me. He knew how I would approach a game and that I could articulate it.”
“We’ll have the experience to watch video and watch practices together as we get ready for the season," Wrubell said. "What led to this decision was very much a culmination of my past experiences with Riley, recent interviews with Riley and recent conversations with him, combined with his innate ability and interest in the position and doing it at a high level. It’s really kind of an intuition thing and a real sense that this is something he could be very good at very naturally. It will be fun to do it with him. I know he’s looking forward to getting around the team again and getting into scouting again and prepping, not like he would to quarterback a game, but there’s a lot of prep that goes into calling a game and I know he’ll be great at it.”
Nelson’s debut as a broadcaster will come when BYU opens the 2019 season Aug. 29 against arch-rival Utah. He was part of the last team to beat the Utes, a decade ago in 2009. That was his first year with the Cougars after playing one season at Utah State and then serving a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Spain.
During his BYU career, Nelson backed up Max Hall in 2009, beat out Jake Heaps for the starting job in 2010 before suffering a season-ending injury. He regained the starting job in 2011 and endured an injury-riddled 2012 campaign.
Nelson finished his BYU career with 19 starts. He completed 310 of 536 passes for 3,813 yards and he rushed for 793 yards. He threw 32 touchdowns and ran for six TDs.
In 2010, Nelson came off the bench and led a dramatic comeback victory over his former school, Utah State. He's also remembered for throwing a game-winning touchdown pass — after he faked spiking the ball — against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl in 2011.
“That’s a long time ago,” Nelson said of his playing days. “I’m far enough away that people remember those days and it’s not fresh enough that the pain of close losses are all they can think of when they hear my name. It’s good timing.”
No doubt, Nelson is looking forward to the upcoming season.
“There’s a lot of mojo going at BYU,” he said. “Kalani (Sitake) is going into his fourth year and people see what (offensive coordinator Jeff) Grimes and (quarterbacks coach Aaron) Roderick and the offense can do. I’m excited they’re giving me a chance.”42 comments on this story
How long he'll be in the radio booth, nobody knows. Nelson and his wife have a 2-year-old son and another son that will be born in a couple of months.
“My sons are going to be hitting their stride in 8-10 years, when I’ll start coaching them up and being part of their little league Saturdays rather than Cougar Saturdays. That’s what I envision,” Nelson said. “I’ve never done this before. It’s like being a player; you’ve got to win every week. I don’t know if I want to do this for 38 years, but we’ll start with eight years and see where we go from there.”