All BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was looking for was a spark. He ended up with a new starting quarterback.
Indeed, when he put Riley Nelson into the game against Utah State with the Cougars trailing 24-13, Mendenhall had no idea what to expect. Nelson had been in on a few plays here and there behind center. Maybe Nelson could wake the team up. At least, he would play with more energy.
He did more than that. Not only did he rally the team to a win, he rallied the team around him. All of a sudden, the Cougars (6-2) looked much more cohesive on offense. Nelson has started the last three games and has won all of them headed into BYU's big game tonight against former Mountain West rival TCU (8 p.m., ESPN).
“Riley got us the energy and execution with this chip-on-the-shoulder mentality of I don't care what other people think,” Mendenhall said of the performance against Utah State. “He thanked me for the opportunity, and it was like Christmas for him. He was really excited to play football, and that was a contagious frame of mind.”
For a player who wondered whether he would ever take another snap as a starting quarterback again, Nelson has made the most of his second chance. It was Nelson who went into last season as the starter, but he was almost doomed to fail because Mendenhall decided he wanted to rotate quarterbacks with Jake Heaps.
Mendenhall hoped to take advantage of their vastly different skill sets. Nelson can run and throw; Heaps is your classic drop-back passer with a stronger arm. Neither got into much of a rhythm. Neither overwhelmed with his performance.
But when Nelson went out for the season last year with a shoulder injury against Florida State, Heaps took the lead. He closed out the season with four touchdown passes in a New Mexico Bowl win over UTEP and was tabbed the starter headed into 2011 without any quarterback competition.
Nelson never pouted to the coaching staff, but he did spend lonely moments in the training room during rehab wondering about his future. “I just thought about how I was going to approach the rest of my college career,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “Am I going to bust my gut and give it my all? What kind of player did I want to be?”
Only a team player would do. Without an opportunity to win the starting quarterback job, Nelson showed up for special-teams tryouts and was one of the best players on the field. Nelson won a job on the kickoff and punt cover teams.
“We made a decision as a team that if he’s one of our best players, then we ought to use him in whatever capacity,” Mendenhall said. “As he kept knocking guys down on kickoff cover and knocking guys down on punt cover, he was sincere about helping our team. That foundation that he laid with our team -- they've come to trust he's really with us, he's trying to help our team.”
Nelson has played much more carefree since he took over at quarterback. He has thrown for 11 touchdowns, including three touchdown passes in each of his three starts and two in just over a quarter’s worth of work against Utah State. He also has run for 284 yards and a score, and provided a nice change of pace in the run game.
“I feel like the biggest difference in my play from last year to this year is I stopped trying to be perfect,” Nelson said. “I stopped trying to make the perfect play or make the perfect read. I stopped trying to put the ball in the perfect spot every time and let my playmakers make plays.
“The second thing from last year to this year is I put so much pressure on myself last year. I was so worried about what everyone was saying and labels they put on me, I was so worried about whatever everybody else was saying it was affecting my play on the field. I’m one more year older and wiser. With another year of experience, I feel I can be me -- whether or not it’s what people like.”