How good is Brigham Young's Riley Nelson, and how long will he be the starting quarterback for the Cougars?
And how good is Jake Heaps, the anointed football messiah destined to rewrite the BYU record books?
And really, that's a very hard thing to do; for almost 40 years, Cougar quarterbacks have made 3,500 passing yards and 40 TDs rather blasé.
Nelson was outstanding in his senior year at Logan High School, throwing for 3,784 yards while rushing for another 1,150. He had a fine 141.8 QB rating and was listed as a top-100 high school quarterback.
BYU wanted him very badly, but Nelson's family has ties to Utah State dating back to the 1930s. Being an Aggie for Nelson had an historical significance. He couldn't say no.
While Nelson was off serving his mission, Heaps began to mature into a great quarterback in Washington state. He passed for almost 3,000 yards in his senior season, throwing 43 TDs and racking up a 126.5 QB rating.
Heaps was considered the top quarterback in the country. When he signed with BYU, it was a major coup.
But a funny thing happened.
Nelson, who as a freshman threw for 925 yards and six touchdowns in limited play—and who would become the Aggies' starting QB when he returned—switched alliances and went to BYU when he returned home from his mission.
During Heaps' senior season in high school, Nelson did some mop-up duty behind BYU's Max Hall. Upon his graduation, there would be an open competition between the more mature Nelson and the wet-behind-the-ears Heaps.
But in one of Bronco Mendenhall's worst decisions as a head coach, he began 2010 with two starting quarterbacks,—Heaps and Nelson—and both failed miserably. An injury against Florida State, though, ended Nelson's season and the unfortunate experiment.
Heaps, of course, played well over the remainder of the season, passing for 2,300 yards and 15 touchdowns. He looked confident, and his learning curve matched his talent level.
There was no doubt that Heaps would get the starting nod for 2011. Most thought he would blossom as a sophomore, just like Max Hall did in 2007 when the Arizona State transfer threw for 3,850 yards and 26 TDs.
Sadly, Heaps has done little this season to embolden a Max Hall comparison.
Heaps was missing wide-open receivers and seemed very unsure of himself in tough situations. When he was running the offense in practice—with no pressure—he was Jim McMahon reincarnate.
But when the whistles blew, and he was facing down 11 very cranky college boys, he seemed to wilt under the light of expectation.
Nelson, on the other hand, never looked particularly impressive during practice. Part of that reason was the strict rules that precluded the defense from hitting the quarterback. Without being chased across the field and without having to think on his feet in a win-or-lose battle, Nelson's greatness never showed.
Brandon Doman was that way too. Coaches prickled at his practice demeanor, but once he donned pads and a helmet, his burning desire to win outweighed his more moderate skill set.
We've seen it for three games now. Nelson moves with a quickness that Heaps doesn't have. He pushes forward, moving, dodging, sliding, twirling and eluding before somehow pushing the ball downfield.
Nelson looks like a football player.
His jersey is usually ripped midway through the first quarter. His helmet pops off at least once a game. His flowing hair—albeit a shorter version—waves in the sideline wind, making him look very much like the bad Prince Charming from Shrek.
Heaps looks like a 10-year-old with all the talent in the world. The ball just explodes out of his hand and looks like an Air Force missile heading down range. The problem is he throws just that way; he hasn't learned how to finesse the ball into the hands of his receivers.
Heaps drops back, and then he throws. One down looks just like the next. He doesn't move around very much in the backfield like Nelson does, so if he doesn't get the ball off, he gets sacked.
And with each succeeding down in a drive, Heaps' accuracy seems to wane so by third down, so there just isn't a lot of hope for a completion and continuation downfield.
And so on that Friday night a few weeks back, a perfect storm of boos and poorly thrown balls forced the team to pull Heaps—their quarterback of the future—in favor of Nelson, who had yet to have any real success at the collegiate level.
Prior to Nelson trotting on to the field at Levell Edwards Stadium to take on the Aggies, punter Riley Stephenson had punted 26 times in a little more than four games.
Since that moment, he’s punted just once.
That's once in 10 quarters of football.
The offense is on the move again. Without Nelson, BYU has scored 14, 16, 10 and 24 points.
With him they have surged to 27, 29 and 38 points. Nelson has now thrown for 618 yards (roughly 248 yards per game), eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He's also rushed for another 222 yards (about 88 yards a game).
Nelson is exciting to watch, partly because of the array of tools he possesses, but also because he can really make some really gruesome mistakes.
In the game against Oregon State, he dropped to pass, shifted to his right—stared at his receiver for what seemed like an eternity—and then threw right into the arms of the defensive back who saw the same thing. He ran untouched into the end zone.
Nelson makes his share of mistakes, but they are due to commission, not omission. He has to move the ball,—that's his job—and he will do all he can to succeed. Sometimes, his choices aren't the greatest, but he explodes with passion when he fails. He hops, he drops and he mouths words that seem inconsistent with his religious ardor.
That's called leadership.
Heaps, on the other hand, seems to throw three incomplete passes and then trots off the field, eager to melt into the uniformity of the team's sideline scrum.
He has yet to learn his leadership skills.
There is little doubt that Nelson will remain the team's starting quarterback for the rest of the season.
And why not? He's going to beat Idaho State, Idaho, New Mexico State and Hawaii; TCU is a toss-up.
The Cougars will likely finish the year 9-3, and if they can win their bowl game, they will enjoy their fifth season with 10 or more wins in their last six.
And if that happens, Nelson has to remain the starter for his senior season in 2012.
I wouldn't be surprised if Heaps is redshirted next year, giving him another year to gain maturity and experience, and then take the offensive helm for his last two years in Provo. Some suggest that if this happens—or if he doesn't start again this year—he might transfer elsewhere.
And that's OK; he wouldn’t be the first. BYU has a bevy of quality quarterbacks now in the system who could be Nelson’s backup next year.
Taysom Hill (from my son's high school here in Pocatello, Idaho) changed his mind and chose not to attend Stanford, probably because of last year's coaching change. Hill is a Nelson-like quarterback, but with a little stronger arm and faster feet.
In his senior year, Hill passed completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,269 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also ran for almost 1,500 yards. If Heaps is not the answer—or doesn't want to be—Hill could step in and give BYU four more years of a dual quarterback threat.
So Heaps is perhaps the most gifted quarterback in the west, but has not yet learned what a quarterback's real duty is—and that is to lead. I'm sure he will one day, but that day has yet to arrive.
Nelson has more moderate skills, but makes the most out of them by never slowing down on the football field. He is always thinking one play ahead, setting up the current one to enhance another that has yet to happen.
Hill is Nelson on steroids, and he could be the quarterback who leads an independent BYU to the promised land.
Seven games into the 2011 season things have settled down, and each quarterback knows what they must do, or not do, to help the team succeed.
Now it's just a matter of seeing if they can translate knowing what to do into actually doing it. Nelson is almost there, while Heaps has a way to go. Hill will be able to do it, but hasn't been asked to yet.
No matter what happens, BYU will continue to prosper in the coming years.
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