Riley Nelson and the BYU Quarterback Factory: Will He Measure Up with the Best?

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Riley Nelson and the BYU Quarterback Factory: Will He Measure Up with the Best?
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Ty Detmer

BYU is known as the “Quarterback Factory.” Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Ty Detmer, Robbie Bosco, Marc Wilson, Gifford Nielson, John Beck and Max Hall all went on to the NFL. Some of them won Super Bowls, MVP awards and made the Hall of Fame.

The big question is, does Riley Nelson have a shot at  making that list?

Here is why, or why not, and what he must do.

Riley Nelson will finish his senior year all alone with no competition for the job. That is quite an honor at BYU, considering the talent that has preceded him. That fact may have actually been the doom of Jake Heaps, who it seemed at times couldn't decide if or when to throw the ball. Riley on the other hand has no such mental limitations. But does he stack up with the best of the best at BYU? 

Or will he fall into the ranks of those at BYU who didn't meet the tremendous expectations of "the factory."

BYU Football began when BYU was BYA, or Brigham Young Academy, way back  in 1896. It didn’t last long and football was discontinued in 1903. One must really say that BYU football actually began in 1922 where it was little more than a club team. However, the era of BYU football is best remembered as beginning in 1928 under Ott Romney, yes a relative of the candidate by the same name.

Ott gave BYU its first winning season, and led BYU along with Eddie Kimball to a 65-51-12 record between 1928 and 1942. The best year during that time was the 1932 season when they went 8-1, losing only to Utah, 29-0. But they also outscored their other opponents by 188-21. Not a bad season. 

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Steve Sarkisian

The era of BYU that we know today did not arrive until LaVell Edwards and Gary Sheide took over at Quarterback. Sheide is still ranked number 13 on the all time quarterback list, ahead of Brandon Doman, Sean Covey, Jake Heaps and way down the list at #24 is Riley Nelson. 

It was Gary Sheide under the tutelage of Edwards who ushered in the era of throwing the ball down the field. At the time, football was dominated by the heavy run oriented offense. It was known as three runs in a cloud of dust. Edwards was a defensive coach and one day on the BYU practice field told me personally that the reason he started throwing the ball as head coach was that it was the hardest thing for him to try to defend. So he thought it would be hard for others to defend. He also said he threw the ball because his players weren’t as big as other teams' players. He played to what he had.

Those two events converged in history and the result is what we have called at BYU the “quarterback factory” and looked to each heir with an air of expectation, somewhat like the waiting prince to ascend the throne. The pressure has been intense and sunk more than one young man.

To bring us forward from Gary Sheide, the first quarterback I watched play at BYU, to today, BYU has had no fewer than 10 quarterbacks go to the NFL, with one of them winning a Super Bowl and joining the NFL Hall of Fame. Another, winning the Heisman Trophy and throwing for over 15,000 yards. BYU has had some heady days, and they have not been far removed with the accomplishments of Max Hall, (#2 overall) and John Beck, (#3 overall). 

So how does #24 Riley Nelson match up for his three year career? In a few words, he has a long way to go to pass Jake Heaps at #16. To beat Sean Covey at #15 he will have to throw for over 2,250 yards. He has only thrown for 2,021 yards in his first two years. 

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Max Hall

To break the top 10 and edge out Steve Sarkisian, he would have to throw for over 5,240 yards. That mark would exceed Ty Detmer’s mark of 5,188 in 1990. I think we can agree Riley Nelson will not throw for 5,000 yards this year. I think we can also agree he will not throw for 4,000, or even 3,000. But if he could throw for 2,000, BYU could have a fairly good season.

More than just yards, there are other accomplishments he will need to make. He will need to improve from his 57% throwing accuracy to over 62%. Other than Marc Wilson (#9) at 59%, and John Walsh (#6) at 60%, all of the outstanding quarterbacks in BYU history have thrown for over 62% or better. Sarkisian threw for 67% and again, that will be unattainable for Nelson.

If we look at other statistics, Riley will need to throw more passes (over 252) than he has thrown in his entire career at BYU. He will also have to have more completions (143) than he has thrown. If he throws twice as many completions he will still only reach the level of Sean Covey (307), but not reach the level of Jake Heaps (363). 

Touchdowns: Riley has a good TD to interception rate. He has 22 TD’s and only eight interceptions. But, if he threw another 22 touchdowns he wouldn’t reach the touchdowns that Gary Sheide threw. This will be a long road to break into the top 15.

At best, giving Riley a season of 2,300 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 165 completions, he would still only rank alongside Gary Sheide at number 13. To do that, Riley will have to throw for 200 yards a game, two touchdowns a game, and have 13 pass completions a game. Impossible? No, not for the average BYU quarterback. But he hasn’t been able to do that so far.

Will Riley Break into Top 15 Quarterbacks?

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Riley Nelson is not, and won’t be at the end of the season one of BYU’s best of the best, or even best, or even break into the top 15. If he is lucky, he will beat out Jake Heaps numbers and maybe even Sean Covey and land in that number 15 spot. 

There is one more big statistic. Health. Riley is a great competitor. That is well known. His fearlessness is laudable. I love to see him pull the ball down and go head first after some safety hoping he runs over the kid. Far too often however, he seems to run into a linebacker and I cringe, “oh no,” and hold my breath. Too many times he has not emerged from that encounter better for it.

If Riley can stay healthy he really could put up an average of three touchdowns a game, 250-275 yards, and throw for around 60% as an average. Here is a list of things that will help him do that.

1. Don’t run, stay in the pocket and throw to your tight ends. On blitzes there is someone open.

2. Remember Ross Apo, he likes tight patterns that are timed. Practice them with him.

3. No more head down charges into the line, scramble right and dump off to your backs.

4. Put some muscle on your frame. You could put 15 pounds of muscle on before the first game. Call Larry Scott, he can help you with that: 800-225-9752.

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