The Brigham Young Cougars Quarterback Conundrum

The Brigham Young Cougars quarterback situation has evolved from being undecided after fall camp to a dilemma after game one, and to a controversy after game two. After game three, the QB situation is now a conundrum. Neither Riley Nelson nor Jake Heaps has outplayed the other and made an overwhelming case to be the one, as Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall has said he was waiting for.

Depending on which fan you talk to, the decision is easy. They know who they want to play quarterback. For the coaches, it is not so simple. Deciding on a starting quarterback is always difficult because the quarterback is the most important player on the team. In this particular case, the decision is more convoluted due to BYU’s offensive identity, the youthfulness of Jake Heaps, the lack of offensive chemistry, the mixed results through three games, and the only real success coming against Washington.

For nearly 40 years, BYU has been Quarterback U. The only times that BYU has known success is when they passed the pigskin. Why mess with a good thing, right? Riley Nelson puts that identity in jeopardy. He has a better running ability than most former BYU quarterbacks. A mobile quarterback isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just look at Tim Tebow, Donovan McNabb, and Steve Young. It is fine if Nelson tucks the ball and runs about 10 times a game, and it is always good if defenses have to prepare for another dimension. The problem with Nelson is that he hasn’t been able to show that he is capable of being molded into a proficient passer. When option pitches and designed QB sprint outs and draws start to become a staple of the offense, BYU is in trouble.

If Nelson running the ball is such a problem, then the decision is easy, right? Just play Heaps.

Heaps isn’t a sure fire winner either, at least not this year. Heaps is a true freshman, and true freshmen don’t have a very good track record of success. Tate Forcier only won 5 games at Michigan last year. Jimmy Clausen only won 3 games at Notre Dame in 2007. Matt Barkley led USC to a 9-4 record last year, which by USC standards was a disappointing year. Redshirt freshman have been successful, such as Kellen Moore at Boise State, Colt McCoy at Texas, and Sam Bradford at Oklahoma.

Heaps has had some flashes of greatness, but he has also had moments where he looks like a freshman. In the Florida State game, he needed to put some touch on a screen pass on third and goal. Instead, he rifled the ball to the back who was unable to adjust to it and BYU had to settle for a field goal. On the opening drive of the second half, BYU faced third and short. Heaps overthrew an open receiver on a short pass that would have picked up the first down. Those are freshman mistakes. Do we have to wait for Heaps to be a sophomore for those mistakes to go away, or will he have a shorter learning curve?

Before the season started, the majority seemed to be saying, “I want the quarterback that will win the most games to play this year.” While Heaps may be destined for a great BYU career, the odds are stacked against him this year.

The coaches do have some results to draw on now, something that they didn’t have in fall camp. Unfortunately, the results don’t indicate a clear leader. If anything, the results favor Nelson.

Nelson: 20-40, 205 yards, 2 TD, 1 Int (31 rushes, 148 yards, 1 TD)
Heaps: 30-60, 260 yards, 1 TD, 1 Int (7 rushes, -55 yards)

Nelson: 4 TD drives
Heaps: 3 FG, 1 TD

When Nelson got all the reps in the second half against Air Force, the offense was terrible. If Heaps had gotten all the reps, I don’t think the results would have been any worse. Conversely, Heaps played most of the Florida State game this week. He got 10 points and the offense had less than 200 total yards. Continuing the “what if” game, if Nelson had played, he probably could have gotten 10 points as well.

The hardest part of using the results of each quarterback to name a starter is that they are not playing in a controlled environment. Quarterbacks depend on their supporting cast for success. The entire BYU offense has had issues this year.

Offensive Chemistry
Simply put, there is none. The two strengths of the BYU offense were supposed to be the offensive line and the wide receivers. The last two games, the O-line has been out played. They gave up eight sacks. BYU’s last four drives against Florida State ended the same way: a sack. If the offensive line is going to play this bad all year, it might be better to let Nelson take the beating and protect Heaps. At least Nelson might be able to scramble and avoid a loss.

The wide receivers are completely missing in action. Cody Hoffman is the only one to have caught a touchdown, and he is a new guy. Veterans like McKay Jacobson, O’Neill Chambers, and Luke Ashworth are struggling to get open, and when they do break free they drop the passes thrown to them.

Tight end has been the most consistent position at BYU the last 30+ years. Even though BYU has no returning tight ends, the talent level at this position is off the charts. This year, they have been non-existent. Freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and return missionaries have stepped in and played the TE spot well for BYU in the past, why not this year? The situation is so bad that the coaches even resorted to using Chambers in a flex end spot.

Are all these problems a result of practice reps being split between two quarterbacks with different playing styles? Or, are the quarterback problems a result of a poor supporting cast?

Washington is still Washington. At least they have one win this year. Nebraska showed us just how bad they are this last weekend. Besides Washington being a bad team, the Huskies are also Jake Heaps’ hometown team. Football players often play better when the stakes are raised. For Heaps, the stakes were very high in this game. Not only was he playing in his very first college football game, he was doing it against the hometown team that he spurned to come to Provo. He had a lot to prove to the critics back home. Did all of this compound so that Jake’s play against Washington was an aberration, or will he play better in many more games this year? Hard to say at this point, but it could be something the coaches are considering.

The Decision
The coaches should be worrying a lot about the quarterback position this week. As we can see, the success of BYU football is tied to the success of the quarterback. Neither quarterback has played well when he has gotten consecutive series. Nearly all of BYU’s offensive success has come using the two QB system alternating every series. Instability at the QB spot doesn’t bode well for BYU, either. Just look at 1997 and 2000.

The decision is still the same as it has always been: who will win more games for BYU in 2010? I am not sold on either quarterback. If Nelson can be a more typical BYU quarterback I think I would go with him, but I have not seen that yet from him. He resembles Lance Pendleton more than Brandon Doman at this point. With Heaps, my reservation is that he is just a freshman. If he starts to get all the reps in practice will he beat the odds for freshman success? Will the offensive chemistry issues be solved? Most importantly, will more points be put on the board?

The coaches truly have a conundrum at the quarterback spot. As I have said all along, how ever the QB battle ends, the coaches need to stand by it. They have three options: Nelson, Heaps, or use both and alternate every series. This is the time to pick one and stick with it for the rest of the year. Each option will have its good times and bad times, but consistency will help to maximize the good and minimize the bad.


  1. Who is the author of this article.
    Well though out and explained.

    Its analysis beats the rants we're getting on cougarfan and other boards.

  2. Thanks for the positive feedback.

    I just read that Nelson has an undisclosed finger injury, so the headache might be solved for the coaches.

  3. Well said, Scott. I think that the coach's just need to make a decision and stick with it. I think if the coaches committed to Nelson and developing his passing attack, there would be a much better chance of him becoming "two dimensional" and being able to better fit the BYU mold.

    On the other hand, if the just choose to stick to Heaps, then they could focus on helping him develop more rapidly and workout all the "freshman" mistakes. I think our chances on this season are just as good with either one, but much better with commitment to one rather than indecision and back and forth play.

    I also think that once that decision is made, the coaches can focus on developing the other positions (O-Line, WR, TE, etc.) I think right now the quarterback conundrum is effecting the performance of these other positions.

    Lastly, I think that just because one quarterback is chosen does not mean we cannot use the other quarterback. If we commit to Heaps, then we can continue to utilize Nelson's running ability based on situational needs. If we commit to Nelson, then we can still take the time to play Heaps a little every game (maybe commit 2-4 series to him) in order to help him grow and develop. Regardless, we need to to have the coaches name a clear cut number 1. No, it won't be easy, but if they wait much longer the before committing, the whole season could be lost.

  4. Looks like Nelson's injury has resolved the conundrum:


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