BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall has always preferred to have a starting quarterback in place by the end of spring practice.
“In the past, I’ve really liked to have a starter by the end of spring practice so they can develop leadership through their own workouts during the summer,” Mendenhall said.
But that won’t be the case this summer because the battle to replace record-setting quarterback Max Hall was too close to call after spring practice.
Three players -- junior Riley Nelson, freshman Jake Heaps and sophomore James Lark -- battled to win the job during spring practice. Mendenhall said Nelson and Heaps had a slight edge over Lark when spring practice ended last week. But Lark, who returned to BYU in December after a two-year LDS mission in St. Petersburg, Russia, remains very much in the hunt.
“I expected Riley to be clearly ahead of the other two, but the other two have surprised me,” Mendenhall said.
Nelson was Hall’s backup in 2009 and played in seven games, completing seven of 10 passes with one touchdown. Before transferring to BYU, Nelson started the final eight games at Utah State in 2006, completing 55 percent of his passes for 925 yards with six touchdowns. He also ran for 290 yards.
“One of Riley’s great strengths is just his grit and determination,” Mendenhall said. “He’s very comfortable running the football, throwing on the run and is a scramble threat.”
Heaps, from Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., was one of the country’s most recruited quarterback prospects. He was also recruited by Washington, Tennessee, LSU, Notre Dame and California, before enrolling at BYU in January. Heaps guided Skyline High School to three state championships while compiling a 40-2 record as a three-year starter. He passed for 9,196 yards with 114 touchdowns and only 18 interceptions during his high school career.
Lark, from St. George, Utah, was the state’s 3A MVP as a senior at Pine View High School in 2005. He redshirted at BYU as a freshman in 2006, before leaving for his two-year mission. Lark was recruited by most Pac-10 schools and Utah before signing with the Cougars.
“[Heaps and Lark] are probably more similar to each other,” Mendenhall said. “They’re more of a prototype BYU quarterback, but that doesn’t necessarily give them an advantage. Lark’s conditioning and grasp of the offense exceeds what I thought it would be at this point.”
Another freshman, Jason Munns, joins the quarterback competition this fall. Munns, from Southridge High School in Kennewick, Wash., redshirted at BYU in 2007, before leaving for a two-year LDS mission in Mexico.
Munns will have to make up a lot of ground this fall to catch the other three BYU quarterbacks.
“They’re all three really talented,” BYU running back Harvey Unga said. “Riley definitely brings a different aspect to the game with his running ability, but all three of them throw the ball well. To be honest, the young guys have been a pleasant surprise. They’ve definitely picked up the offense quicker than people thought they would.”
Regardless of which player wins the starting job this fall, Mendenhall said he hasn’t eliminated the idea of playing more than one quarterback this coming season.
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Mendenhall said. “I’d prefer to have a single quarterback and single starter, but I couldn’t rule it out.”