Since the Brigham Young Cougars conluded spring practices April 10, 2010, BYU fans have gone through the Harvey Unga bombshell and the climax of the conference expansion hoopla. Now that fall camp is just around the corner, it is time to refocus on what really matters: the quarterback race. The battle for the starting spot in 2010 is an epic one unlike any other. The talent level of the competing quarterbacks, the high stakes for BYU this year, and the historical similarities are three elements of this quarterback race that make it so epic.
The talent level of the competing quarterbacks is much more than the presence of super prep Jake Heaps. Yes, he did enroll early and surpassed everyone’s expectations in the spring. However, Heaps is only one of three very heralded prep stars vying for the starting position. Consider the following:
Riley Nelson-Parade High School All-American, Utah’s Mr. Football, set 9 state records.
James Lark-Class 3A MVP, First team All-State as a junior and a senior, set one state record.
Jake Heaps-Parade and USA Today High School All-American, Washington state player of the year (twice), Scout.com #1 ranked high school quarterback.
BYU has landed talented quarterbacks in the past, but to have three quarterbacks with this much acclaim all competing for the starting spot takes this competition to a different level.
The stakes are very high for BYU this year. BYU has more at stake this year than it has in a very long time. Higher stakes for the team, naturally, creates higher pressure on the quarterback. It has been well publicized that BYU has put together four consecutive 10+ win seasons for the first time in school history, that BYU has won more games in the last four years than all but a handful of teams in the entire country, and that BYU has been ranked in the major polls for four consecutive years. It only takes a few bumps in the road to stop all of these trends. In this, the BCS, era, sustained success is critical for schools not in an automatic qualifying conference. Without sustained success, national respect, fair treatment in the polls, and BCS bowl invites are impossible for BYU. More importantly, with the changes to the college football landscape through conference expansion this offseason, BYU could be unofficially auditioning for an invite to the Big XII this year. Now is not the time for BYU to have a “rebuilding” year. With or without Harvey Unga, the success of the football team this year was always contingent on the new quarterback. BYU needs a guy who will keep the ball rolling.
The third element that makes this quarterback race stand out is the historical similarities. Normally, looking into the past is a good way to find a precedent to provide guidance in the current situation. Not so in this case. Rather than helping, these similarities actually blur the picture. Some similarities lend support to starting Riley Nelson, and others favor throwing Jake Heaps into the line up from the first snap.
1997: BYU was coming off its most successful campaign in over a decade. Two quarterbacks had separated themselves from the rest of the competition, and they were dueling it out for the starting role. Paul Shoemaker, the junior return missionary, was up against Kevin Feterik, a highly touted prep from the west coast. Shoemaker got the nod for the home and season opener against … Washington. After a slow first half, Shoemaker was benched for Feterik. The season ended a disastrous 6-5 (4-4 WAC).
EDGE: Heaps. If the coaches are only waiting for Nelson to make a mistake before they play Heaps, then just play Heaps from the beginning. Such an approach will result in the coaches unfairly scrutinizing everything Nelson does. This is not fair for the quarterbacks, and it is not fair to the team.
2000: LaVell Edwards’ final season saw a three man race. Bret Engemann and Charlie Peterson were the BYU prototype, drop-back passers. Brandon Doman was the mobile quarterback who was a natural leader. Engemann and Peterson struggled through the first ten games (injuries didn’t help the situation) and BYU was 4-6 with two games to go. Enter Doman. Doman saved the season by engineering back-to-back wins. The following season Doman went on to win 12 games.
EDGE: Nelson. Nelson is a better runner than passer, but Doman is proof that a quarterback that doesn't quite fit the BYU mold can succeed at BYU (don’t forget Steve Young either). Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall has lauded Nelson for his leadership abilities, which is sometimes more important for winning than talent.
2002: Ben Olson came to town as the number one high school quarterback recruit in the 2002 class. In practice, he was clearly the most talented quarterback on the roster. Questions about starting a freshman and potential mission plans kept Olson on the sidelines as he redshirted. Two years later, following a mission, Olson transferred to UCLA. As for the team, 2002 was BYU’s first losing season since 1973.
EDGE: Heaps. The coaches need to forget everything else and just play the best quarterback.
2005: Brandon Doman returned to BYU to coach the quarterbacks. Doman will have ample opportunities to comment and influence Bronco Mendenhall’s final decision of who should start. As a quarterback who was overlooked for most of his career because running was his forte, how much of himself does he see in Riley Nelson? Does he subconsciously give Nelson the benefit of the doubt when he makes a mistake and does he overplay Nelson’s virtues when he makes a big play? If Nelson and Heaps are neck and neck at the end of fall camp, will Doman lobby for Nelson the way he wished that a coach had lobbied for him?
EDGE: Nelson. If the race is too close to call, Doman’s presence may tip the scale in favor of giving Nelson the chance to prove himself.
These past quarterback battles provide some lessons to help the current coaching staff to avoid pitfalls that may jeopardize the recent string of sucess. The other side of history is to look at the years that BYU made sucessful quarterback transitions. Looking at those years, two general patterns are evident.
Pattern one, when the coach makes a decision on a starter he needs to stick with it. When the quarterback situation is not stable, BYU usually has disappointing years. Even when BYU rotated two future NFL first round draft picks at quarterback in 1978 and ended the season with nine wins and a conference championship, the season was overshadowed by a feeling of underachievement. Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Steve Young, John Walsh, Steve Sarkisian, and John Beck all got off to slow starts when they took over the reigns. Whoever starts will be more successful if he can focus on doing his job and improving himself rather than looking over his shoulder and worrying if coach is going to put the other guy in.
Pattern two is that waiting your turn to start is worth it. Jake Heaps’ dreams of a national championship and a career in the NFL will not be over if he does not start this year. Robbie Bosco did not have to start as a freshman to lead BYU to the national championship in 1984. Ty Detmer redshirted and then backed up Sean Covey for a year, but Detmer was still able to win the Heisman Trophy. If Heaps does not start this year, he can still do great things at BYU. In fact, none of the legendary BYU quarterbacks started when they were freshmen. While Heaps may be more talented and gifted than most BYU quarterback recruits, history shows that he probably won’t pass for 3,000 yards or throw 20 touchdown passes if he starts this year.
As the battle resumes in the next few weeks and races to the finish line in a little more than a month, Cougar fans should be happy that there is so much talent to choose from, and that BYU has had so much recent success that picking the right quarterback is critically important. History provides some valuable lessons and patterns that can help Bronco and his staff make a decision and ensure the continued sucess of BYU in 2010. While this quarterback race is already an epic, either Riley Nelson or Jake Heaps will have the opportuinity on the field to defy history. To do so will make this year epic and unlike any other.
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