The education of BYU quarterback Jake Heaps has been quite an adventure to say the least.
First he started the season rotating snaps with Riley Nelson. Then he got the starting job when Nelson hurt his shoulder against Florida State. His first few starts were not so excellent: a 1-3 record, with zero touchdowns and five interceptions.
Heaps was not alone when it came to struggling. But at BYU the focus is on the quarterback, fairly or unfairly. True freshmen are not expected to become Heisman Trophy candidates right from the start, but his inconsistency was painful to watch at times.
Through seven games, the Cougars had a herky-jerky offense with few playmakers and a 2-5 record that left them teetering on the brink of getting left out of a bowl game. They had transformed themselves into a power rushing team, a foreign concept to a program so used to churning out NFL quarterbacks.
But that run game helped ease the pressure off Heaps. Of course, it helped that BYU was about to enter the softest part of its schedule; He faced three bowl teams in his first four starts, but just one bowl team in his final five starts.
The improvement has been steady. In his final five starts of the season, Heaps has thrown 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. His passing yards average (215) and completion percentage (61.6) in those five starts were better than his averages in his first four starts (118 yards per game, 54.6 completion percentage). BYU went from averaging 14 points in his first four starts to 37 points in his last five starts.
“Everybody wants to think they can come in right away and be an All-Star from the first play they play but it’s a reality that sometimes it’s going to take a little bit longer than you’d like it to,” Heaps said in a phone interview. “I know what I am capable of, and I still have a lot to grow. I’m not done growing and I’m not done progressing.
“Playing quarterback at BYU is a special opportunity and I’ve been blessed and fortunate. You’re going to have some times where not everything is going right, but you have to keep your head up and keep swinging.”
How Heaps performs in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday against UTEP could go a long way toward helping his momentum headed into next season. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said last week that Heaps would go into the spring with an edge to start at quarterback, but expects to open the competition up once again with the return of Nelson.
If this season taught Mendenhall anything, it is how disastrous the results can be when you waffle on a starting quarterback. The rotation of Nelson and Heaps hurt BYU because team chemistry and rhythm suffered badly.
No playmakers emerged at receiver until much later in the season. The biggest help Heaps got was from running back J.J. DiLuigi, who led the team in rushing and receiving.
So it is difficult to believe Mendenhall would want to go that route again, especially since the Cougars face a tough schedule in their first season as an independent. He cannot afford to have Heaps' growth stunted for a second straight season.
Plus, Heaps has gained the confidence of his teammates. DiLuigi said Heaps has developed into more of a leader and become more vocal, something the players needed to see out of their quarterback.
“This is a guy who out of high school had not lost very many games,” DiLuigi said. “To have to go through some losses in the beginning of the season really changed him. You notice a change in his work ethic and his leadership.”
Heaps has more learning ahead. The second half of the season only gave a small glimpse into his continuing education.