ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 28: Riley Nelson #13 of the BYU Cougars throws during a game against the TCU Horned Frogs at Cowboys Stadium on October 28, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
I'm itching for football season as much as anyone else, so for this week's Cougar Sports Weekly, I decided to start digging into the 2012 season in earnest by previewing WSU's first opponent, BYU.
There's a lot of good stuff in there -- about 2,300 words total on those other Cougars -- but one of the cooler things is that I'm lining up guys who cover WSU's opponent to weigh in on the specifics of their team. For this week, I was able to get the help of Greg Wrubell, BYU's play-by-play man. (Follow him on Twitter here -- he's very cool and responds to tweets regularly!) He answered three questions; here's the first:
1. Jake Heaps is a player many of our fans are familiar with, given his prep career in Washington. What is it about Riley Nelson that allowed him to surpass such a highly touted prospect?
Nelson and Heaps shared the job to start the 2010 season, with Heaps assuming the clear-cut starter's role only after Nelson was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in the third game. Heaps struggled mightily as a true freshman starter in '10, but finished well, earning MVP honors in the New Mexico Bowl win over UTEP. Nelson recovered from surgery, but Heaps was named the starter going into spring of 2011, never having had to truly "beat out" Nelson for the no. 1 job. Interesting that in the spring game, Nelson led his team to a comeback overtime win over Heaps' squad, and many players chose to take some meaning out of that particular situation.
Heaps started the 2011 season, and quite simply never got into a groove. In his five starts, his completion percentage dropped in every game, from one game to the next, and the BYU offense had its worst first-five-game productivity in decades. Adding to the difficulties was an offensive coordinator (Brandon Doman) learning on the fly in his first season on the job. Doman thought Heaps would engineer a prolific huddle-up, pro-style drop-back passing attack, but Heaps, for whatever reason, struggled to make throws and his timing was just off. Heaps is a very good technical/mechanical QB, but the mental/emotional aspects of his game were sorely lacking. He was never able to assert himself as a leader (a number of factors were involved), and the offense-indeed the team-was fractured as a result. At 2-2 on the season, BYU was on the verge of losing at home to in-state foe Utah State, trailing by two scores in the third quarter. Doman decided to make the QB switch that turned the entire season around. He inserted Nelson, who immediately began to move the chains, utilizing his scrambling ability to energize the offense. Nelson led the comeback from down 24-13, tossing the deflected game-winning TD with 11 seconds remaining, and the rest is history. The only other game Heaps would start was a game Nelson missed due to injury, as Nelson went 6-1 as a starter, and totally won over the team, which finished 10-3 with a third straight bowl win.
Nelson helped turn BYU from one of the worst third-down teams in the county through four games, into one of the top five in the nation by the end of the season. His style and Heaps' style are totally different; Nelson is an excellent runner and decent thrower (finished 2011 ranked 16th nationally in pass efficiency), while Heaps had a gun but no ability to run. Nelson is already third on BYU's all-time QB rushing tally, and should pass Steve Young for second place this upcoming season, with an outside chance of finishing his career as BYU's number one rushing QB.
The bottom line of Nelson's emergence and Heaps' benching comes down to leadership. Players love Nelson, who has never had anything handed to him at BYU, and has gone through tough times to get to where he is. Last season, as the backup quarterback, he was a gunner on special teams. There aren't too many guys in the different-color QB jerseys running down returners in kick coverage drills, but Nelson was that guy last season. He is as tough as they come. Last season, in a home game versus Idaho, he suffered a partially collapsed lung and rib cartilage injury while standing in on a hit. A few plays later, he was throwing a touchdown. Half an hour later, he was in the hospital, where he stayed for two days to stabilize. Three weeks later, at about 75% of wellness, he was throwing for a season-high 363 yards and three touchdowns in a win at Hawaii-a game Bronco Mendenhall was sure he would miss. That's Riley Nelson.
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