We continue our series previewing selected non-AQ teams.
He knows it is unprecedented at BYU. A school steeped in quarterback tradition playing two? In the same game?
Coach Bronco Mendenhall knows all this, and yet he acknowledged that very possibility if he cannot come to a conclusion in his four-way quarterback battle to replace Max Hall.
As BYU prepares to open camp Saturday, Jake Heaps, Riley Nelson, Jason Munns and James Lark are all in the mix.
“Playing two wouldn’t be my first preference nor would it be my ideal,” Mendenhall said in a phone interview. “But until there is one who had an upper hand, I think it would be the fair thing to do.
“This is a very unique situation. The good news is they’re all very good. Because it’s BYU and we have a good team and a good program we happen to attract good players at that spot. Now we have four. It’s going to be quite a challenge.”
Mendenhall would like to narrow the field down to two early on in camp and then go from there. The two likeliest candidates seem to be the highly touted Heaps and the junior Nelson, who served as the backup to Hall.
Munns and Lark have recently returned from missions, so they are not only working on getting into physical shape, but learning to get to know their teammates and the playbook as well.
If the focus is on Heaps and Nelson, the two could not be more different. Nelson is a running quarterback who transferred in from Utah St. following his mission. He has game experience, but he is not what you would call your prototypical BYU quarterback.
Heaps is. At 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, he has spent his entire life preparing to play football. He enrolled at BYU in the spring and went through practice, impressing his coaches. At one point, Mendenhall says he has to remind himself that Heaps should be finishing up his senior year of high school.
So what will go into his decision on who should start? Mendenhall lists various factors, from the ability to move the ball on the field and be a team leader. There also is one intangible he must consider as well -- being able to shoulder the pressure that comes with playing quarterback at BYU.
“Sometimes the pressure in the community can really affect how a player plays on the field,” Mendenhall said. “The maturity level and watching how the players handle it during fall camp, seeing how it’s affecting their presence and their confidence and their personality -- because it’s going to last their entire career here. They have example after example of tradition in front of them, being at the pinnacle of quarterback play.”
Hall certainly must be considered one of the BYU greats, having set the Mountain West Conference career passing yards record (11,365), and breaking Ty Detmer’s career wins record with 32.
BYU has more to replace than just Hall on offense. Leading receiver Dennis Pitta is gone, along with leading rusher Harvey Unga. On the plus side, four starting linemen return.
There is plenty of work to do on defense, too, where six starters are gone, including three starting linebackers. BYU was picked to finish third in the MWC because some deem this to be a rebuilding year. The front part of the schedule is loaded, too, beginning with the home opener against Washington, then road games at Air Force and Florida State.
“We’ll still demand a lot with this team, but our intent is to build the confidence, build team chemistry,” Mendenhall said. “Not that we’re conceding a championship or a top-20 year, but we’ll have to be different in the way we handle them because of our inexperience.”