PROVO, Utah -- After raving about the past success of BYU senior quarterbacks, the Cougars very well could start a freshman against a Norm Chow-coached Hawaii team Friday night in Provo.
Senior Riley Nelson acknowledged the pain of an unspecified back injury has been problematic both mentally and physically in stinging back-to-back losses to Utah and No. 24 Boise State.
"It's going to be hard if we have to go with a freshman," BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said this week. "That will be quite a unique challenge for us. But players trust him and coaches trust him."
Doman was talking about Taysom Hill, who replaced the mistake-prone Nelson in Thursday's 7-6 loss to the Broncos and engineered a 95-yard, fourth-quarter TD drive only to have his two-point conversion pass to win it tipped away by a linebacker.
"He's not a like a true freshman," Doman said of the returned missionary who has been with the team since January. "He's been around for a while and he's smart. Then he brings a high level of poise, so when he walks out there, the players don't feel like he's a freshman and they feel totally confident in him. If we have to play him, I don't think we'll hesitate for a minute."
Doman said coaches likely will decide by Wednesday whether to stick with Nelson but probably won't announce a starter until game time against Hawaii (1-2).
The Cougars (2-2) certainly need more than the 61 yards passing they got last week- their lowest total since a 3-0 loss to Utah in 2003 when they netted just 41.
"Sixty-one yards passing ... I feel like I'm 61 years old," said Doman. "It's not good enough."
Nelson was just 4 of 9 for 19 yards, with three interceptions (one returned for Boise State's only score), a fumble and two sacks for a negative efficiency rating.
Hill was 4 of 10 for 42 yards but also rushed 12 times for 72 yards, including an 8-yard QB keeper in which he carried several defenders across the goal line for BYU's only touchdown.
"He's big and strong and he's got a big heart," Nelson said of Hill, an Idaho native who initially committed to Stanford before transferring to BYU after his church mission to Australia.
"(Boise State) was his first taste of college ball other than the wildcat package. Being in that situation, I know your head is spinning. So as it slows down, the sky's the limit for him."
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall insisted Monday that Nelson is still his starter if healthy enough.
"I believe in him and I'd like him to be our quarterback," Mendenhall said. "So if he's close to being ready to go, I'll play him. And if he can't go, then he won't play, but that's similar to the past few weeks."
Nelson took a helmet to his back in Game 2 against Weber State and sat out the second half of that lopsided victory with what coaches said were back spasms.
Mendenhall would only say this week that Nelson has a sore back and is getting regular treatment, which includes pain medications during the week.
"It's pretty easy to see (the pain)," Doman said. "He's not the same guy that started the season. That guy had an outstanding first step and was attacking all the time. Right now, there is hesitancy and he's a little gun-shy based on the injury."
Nelson acknowledged that he probably was only at 65 percent against Boise State and put himself at 75-80 percent by Monday, though he was very limited at practice.
"Yeah, it affects you physically but also mentally," Nelson said of the back injury. "There were a few throws that psychologically I didn't have as much confidence in because I could feel the injury. I'd be lying if I said there was no effect. But that is no excuse. If coaches are going to put trust in me to put me on the field, I need to perform at the highest level. I wasn't able to do that."
Nelson, a fiery leader and fierce competitor, also said it would be tough for him to "bow out" of a game. Because of that, Mendenhall and Doman said they have a greater responsibility to make the decision, and quickly assess warning signs that Nelson shouldn't be playing.
Mendenhall said Hill (6-foot-2, 218) is similar in style to Nelson, though he is 2 inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier.
"The reason Taysom is getting the majority of reps is because ... it keeps the game plan alive for Riley and if he can't go, then it's not a big jump to get to Taysom," Mendenhall said.
Players are trying not to let the QB situation affect a team already reeling after back-to-back losses by a combined four points.
"If you're not careful, it can divide a team," wide receiver JD Falslev said. "But I think our coaches are doing a really good job of keeping us focused and not worried about which quarterback is going to play. We know both quarterbacks are very capable. We have a lot of confidence in both of them."