Playing Favorites?

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Riley Nelson has started the last four games. He replaced Jake Heaps at quarterback about half way through game five. Doing the math, that means both Nelson and Heaps have approximately the same amount of playing time this season—4 ½ games.

When Nelson relieved Heaps, only one BYU player had caught a touchdown pass all season long—Ross Apo. On Nelson’s second series after replacing Heaps, Nelson threw a touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman. On the final series of the game, Nelson threw a second touchdown pass to Marcus Mathews. In a little less than one half of play, Nelson threw touchdown passes to more players than Heaps had in 4 ½ games.

As he took a seat on the bench, Heaps had plenty of concerns to worry about. The way Nelson quickly found two different scoring targets added another. It was the perception that Heaps was playing favorites.

Now that Heaps and Nelson have close to equal playing time, a comparison of the two can help us better judge whether Heaps was playing favorites.

Ross Apo has 23 receptions this season. He has caught 15 of those from Heaps (65%) and 8 from Nelson. Apo has four touchdown receptions; three from Heaps and one from Nelson. Clearly, Apo’s imbalanced breakdown could suggest that Heaps was playing favorites.

BYU’s best receiver in 2010 was Cody Hoffman. Hoffman is also BYU’s leading receiver thus far in 2011. Hoffman has caught 37 passes this year, and 62% of those were thrown by Nelson. All of Hoffman’s four touchdown grabs have come from Nelson. Hoffman’s imbalanced breakdown could further suggest that Heaps was playing favorites and throwing to Apo while ignoring BYU’s best receiver.

Further analysis, however, is required to come to any conclusions.

While Hoffman has caught a disproportionate amount of passes from Nelson in the same amount of playing time with each quarterback, Hoffman did catch 14 passes from Heaps. That is only one fewer than Heaps completed to Apo. That is a 1.07:1 ratio of Apo to Hoffman receptions from Heaps.

What is more interesting is that Apo’s 15 and Hoffman’s 14 receptions account for just 27% of all passes completed by Heaps. During the season, Heaps has completed passes to 14 different receivers. In fact, McKay Jacobson is tied with Apo for most receptions from Heaps. The list below shows the number of passes caught by each of Heaps’ 14 targets.

15—Ross Apo, McKay Jacobson
14—Cody Hoffman, J.J. Di Luigi
13—Marcus Mathews
7—JD Falslev, Austin Holt
6—Richard Wilson, Bryan Kariya
4—Michael Alisa
2—Joshua Quezada, Zed Mendenhall, Dallin Cutler
1—Kaneakua Friel

Five different receivers have more than 12 receptions, but none more than 15. That is very good balance. These results make it hard to claim that Heaps was, in fact, playing favorites and excessively throwing the ball in Apo’s direction.

How do Heaps’ numbers compare to Nelson?

Nelson has completed passes to just 12 different receivers, and the balance is top heavy. In fact, Nelson’s completions to Hoffman alone account for 33% of all his completed passes. Only one other player has caught more than 10 passes from Nelson, as the list below indicates.

23—Cody Hoffman
11—JD Falslev
8—Ross Apo
5—Richard Wilson, Bryan Kariya
4—Marcus Mathews, McKay Jacobson, J.J. Di Luigi
3—Austin Holt
1—Michael Alisa, Joshua Quezada, Kaneakua Friel

Nelson’s ratio of passes completed to Hoffman and Apo is 2.88:1 in favor of Hoffman.

The only other argument that could be made to suggest that Heaps was playing favorites is the total number of Heaps passes intended for Apo. Heaps threw 17 passes to Apo that fell incomplete, which would make a total of 32 passes intended for Apo. Of Heaps' 195 pass attempts, that only represents 16%. Just the completions that Nelson has to Hoffman represent 19% of his 118 total attempts.

Heaps may have struggled in his 4 ½ games as the starter, but he wasn’t playing favorites. At least, the numbers don’t support that notion. If any BYU quarterback is guilty of playing favorites, it would be Nelson.

Whether or not it is a bad thing for Nelson to play favorites is a completely different discussion. 

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