A year and a half ago, Brigham Young Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall had to replace his starting quarterback. With a little experienced backup and a blue chip recruit battling it out, Mendenhall let the quarterback position battle become a long, drawn out process that was eventually resolved by default—Riley Nelson got injured. The quarterback position again needs to be managed. Mendenhall now has a second chance to get it right.
The first thing that Mendenhall needs to do differently is be involved. He has a defensive background, so he left the QB situation almost entirely in the hands of his offensive coordinator and quarterback coach (two people at that time).
As the last year and a half has shown, this issue is serious enough that, as the head coach, Mendenhall should be highly involved. Mendenhall wants the team to function in a certain way. The quarterback position cannot be an exception. He should give clear instructions to the new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman that the starting quarterback should be decided the same way as every other position.
The way it all happened, the quarterback position was not decided the same way. Normally, the backup quarterback from the year before is assumed to be the next starter, or at least has the inside track. Nelson was never declared the number one quarterback. Coaches never alluded to the starting spot being his to lose.
Several other starting spots were up for grabs at the same time. Three out of four linebacker positions were open. Highly touted incoming freshmen Zac Stout and Kyle Van Noy were not elevated on the depth chart.
BYU needed to replace running back Harvey Unga. Freshman running back Joshua Quezada didn’t get much consideration to fill that void, despite an impressive high school resume and spring practices.
Even at tight end, where five freshman were dueling for the starting spot, Richard Wilson didn’t get preferential treatment. He was very, very highly rated out of high school.
All of these freshman clearly had more physical gifts, but none of them, except maybe Wilson, were given an equal chance to win the starting job. The upperclassmen won out in every case. The value of their experience tipped the scales in their favor.
Nelson should have been clearly stated number one on the depth chart. He should have gotten the lion’s share of the reps. Even as Heaps flashed his great talent, the coaching staff should have been consistent giving value to Nelson’s greater experience and knowledge of what it was like playing in a college football game just as they did at the other positions.
Heaps, on the other hand, should have been held to the same standards as the other incoming freshmen. It is well documented how Mendenhall has made nothing easy for Van Noy. Van Noy has had to work and fight for all the opportunities he has been given. Just this week, it came out that Mendenhall told USC transfer Hebron Fangupo, point blank, he thought he would never play.
Why wasn’t Heaps “put in his place” when he arrived? Why wasn’t he told the quarterback position at BYU was too complex for a freshman to start? Why wasn’t he told that earning the starting spot would take more than just waiting your turn, but he was expected to fit into the team culture that was already established?
A QB is a QB
While giving Nelson the benefit of the doubt due to his experience, he needed to know that a quarterback is a quarterback. He could be the BYU starter, but he was expected to do the same thing as Steve Young and Brandon Doman. He had to be able to lead a successful passing attack, notwithstanding his ability to create plays with his legs. He would be protected during practice so that defensive players didn’t hit him.
The coaches didn’t take that approach. They tried to develop a new scheme for him around his skill set. That hindered his development throwing the ball. He took some hits in practice that inevitably cut his season short and impacted his effectiveness in the games he did play.
Had the coaches treated Nelson just like any other quarterback, both in practice and in expectations, Nelson may have been healthy all year in 2010. He could have played better once adversity hit in the Air Force game.
That was then, this is now
As they say, hindsight is 20/20, and it is easy to say what should have been done. That was then, and this is now. What matters now is using the lessons learned to settle the quarterback situation now.
After what happened against Utah State, Mendenhall has a rare second chance to correct the mismanagement from a year ago. Mendenhall needs to immediately name Nelson as the starter. He can wait to make that public knowledge for strategic purposes, but internally everyone needs to know and be on the same page.
Heaps can continue his development as a quarterback, leader, and teammate off the field. He can learn the position at the college level by watching an older, more experienced player.
Heaps may have more physical gifts and more upside than Nelson. However, Nelson showed that he is a more complete package, at this point. Nelson has learned to take charge on the field. He knows how to rally a team together. He converted his third downs. Nelson put points on the board.
Points, afterall, are what wins games, and winning games is what takes precedent.
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