BYU's Nelson reclaims starting job

Originally Published: August 24, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

A year later, BYU senior quarterback Riley Nelson is fine-tuning his game, preparing for the Cougars' opener on Thursday night against Washington State. He has spent the summer getting his reps, developing the chemistry with his teammates that will create touchdowns this fall.

[+] EnlargeRiley Nelson
Jim Z. Rider/US PresswireBYU QB Riley Nelson reclaimed his starting job last season and led the Cougars to a 7-1 finish.

A year later, Nelson is no longer the quarterback who got Wally Pipped out of his starting job.

"I've certainly made a lot of mistakes," Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall said, "and I've missed things here and there before. So in looking back, I would have to say I missed it."

What Mendenhall missed is the thing that keeps coaches in the business. It's not the money, as plentiful as it is. With the money has come more scrutiny and less privacy. The pressure to win now is as daily as the cock's crow. Coaches get tunnel vision. Sometimes they don't see the big picture.

Nelson tore up his shoulder in the third game of the 2010 season. Freshman Jake Heaps took over and, at midseason, blossomed. The Cougars, after a 1-4 start, finished 7-6. Mendenhall gave the starting job to Heaps.

"I fully understand the business and the nature of college football," Nelson said. "It's cutthroat. It's competitive, and sometimes you're the guy that gets picked, and sometimes you're the guy that gets left out. There's nothing really that you can do about it."

It turns out that last sentence is not true. Nelson did something about it. What he did won back the job as BYU starting quarterback.

First, he got healthy. His shoulder rehab took so long that the rest of him got out of shape, too. He hadn't returned to 100 percent by the spring of 2011. The decision already had been made. Heaps got the starter's share of the reps. Nelson got the clipboard and the ballcap.

When August practice began last season, Nelson could hear his eligibility clock ticking. He began his college career at Utah State in 2006. Between a two-year LDS mission to Barcelona, after which he enrolled at BYU, and the medical redshirt he received for 2010, Nelson can hear that clock more acutely than most.

There are 105 players on an FBS roster. There are 22 starters. Nelson's problem was universal. His solution was not.

"I was a junior," Nelson said, "and the guy starting in front of me was a sophomore, so all the signs pointed to not getting another meaningful snap. The only way I could see to contribute to the team and play meaningful downs was on special teams."

I fully understand the business and the nature of college football. It's cutthroat. It's competitive, and sometimes you're the guy that gets picked, and sometimes you're the guy that gets left out. There's nothing really that you can do about it.

--BYU QB Riley Nelson

A quarterback playing special teams is like a manicurist performing hand surgery. They are out of their league. Special-teams play is the Wild West of football. The kicking game calls for fast players who delight in full-speed collisions.

"I actually tried to convert him to free safety," Mendenhall said. "I approached him to play on the defensive side of the ball, as I coordinate the defense, because I have such respect for him."

The kicking game felt odd enough. Nelson hadn't played it in eight years, since his sophomore year of high school. But he hadn't played defense since eighth grade -- 2001.

"When Coach Mendenhall and Coach [Brandon] Doman [offensive coordinator] proposed that to me," Nelson said, "I said, 'Guys, this is big-time Division I football. We've got some pretty good safeties.' I was afraid if I did switch over to defense, I would just kind of get lost in the mix, constantly battling to get on the depth chart."

The more the coaches talked, the more they ran into Nelson's resolve.

"When I initially wanted to do [special teams]," Nelson said, "Coach Doman and Coach Mendenhall weren't excited at all. But I was kind of stubborn and said, 'Look, it's my eligibility. I'm going to do with it what I want.'"

Nelson threw everything he had into the kicking game. He not only competed for a job on the first-string special teams, but he lined up on all four scout teams -- kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return. It turns out that Nelson had an ulterior motive.

"A big part of my game is being athletic in the pocket, being able to move," Nelson said. "Rather than holding a clipboard, and kind of getting out of shape, I thought of special teams. That's athleticism at its purest. You're trying to block guys in space. You're trying to beat guys with speed. You've got to make moves. That was one reason I really wanted to do it, was to be able to maintain my athleticism in case an opportunity did come into play.

"The second reason," Nelson said, "was just to help the team in any way I could. If I wasn't the best guy for that position, then fine. If I can get on the field, I think every college football player wants to be on the field and help their team."

Mendenhall didn't say no.

"Maybe if it was anyone else," he said.

Nelson took on his new assignments with a zeal coaches rarely see in a player demoted out of the starting lineup.

"One thing that has always bugged me about the position I've played," Nelson said, "is for some reason, we get special treatment. We have different colored jerseys at practice. If a defensive lineman bumps into you during an 11-on-11 drill, he gets his butt chewed and sometimes kicked out of practice. That always bugs me, because we're football players, too. On Saturdays, we don't get special treatment, so why during practice? I had to push and I had to be stubborn for the coaches to let me be just another guy. I think my teammates responded well to that."

[+] EnlargeBronco Mendenhall
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall was impressed by how Riley Nelson redefined his role on the team after losing the starting QB position.

As the Cougars noticed, Mendenhall noticed.

"I hadn't even imagined Riley becoming our quarterback," the head coach said, "until I watched him put on a scout jersey and run down our kickoff in practice. And run down in a scout jersey and cover a punt. I watched the team begin to be captivated by how he was handling this very unique situation [of] being the backup. Rather than just having a ballcap on and watching, he was anxiously engaged in doing anything he could to help our team."

The season began, and Heaps did not play as well as he played a year earlier. In four games, the Cougars scored a total of 64 points. They went 2-2, with one of the losses being a 54-10 Holy War rout at the hands of Utah.

Nelson never made a tackle. He played gunner on the punt team. He lined up in the backfield and ran a fake punt. And in the fifth game of the season, with BYU trailing Utah State 21-13 late in the third quarter, Nelson came into the game to run the offense.

"He became the heart and soul of our team even though he wasn't the quarterback," Mendenhall said. "Once he got his opportunity, it not only changed the way he played, it changed the way our entire team played. That's the influence of a leader."

Nelson led the Cougars on a touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter. Trailing 24-20, BYU got the ball on its own 4-yard-line with 2:36 to play. Nelson drove the offense the length of the field, and with :11 to play, completed a 13-yard deflected pass to tight end Marcus Mathews for a 27-24 victory.

Deflected? The harder Nelson worked, the luckier he got. "If there's only one person that believes in you, and that person is yourself, then that's enough," Nelson said. "As long as that belief is deep and a good source to motivate you to be able to get up and work every day. … I kind of had a defining moment of, all right, do you believe you can be a college quarterback or don't you?"

Nelson took over as quarterback. The Cougars went 7-1 in their final eight games. Heaps transferred to Kansas. Nelson will start the opener Thursday against Washington State.

"His strength is his grit and his resolve and a competitive spirit," Mendenhall said. "The ballcap approach is just not who he is. That's kind of the identity our team took on."

That's the reason coaches coach. That's the reason for the long days and longer nights. They want to work with young people who have those qualities. Mendenhall lost sight of those qualities in Nelson. But the quarterback made his coach see the big picture again.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com