When the season began, expectations were incredibly high for Jake Heaps to put together a season in line with all the other great BYU quarterbacks who came before him.
He had closed his true freshman season with a flourish, and had been groomed from the time he was a young child to be your prototypical quarterback with a strong arm and quick release. The Cougars also had nearly everybody returning on offense, talent at the skill positions and an offensive coordinator in Brandon Doman, who uniquely understands what it means to play quarterback at BYU.
Well, not much went to plan this season for Heaps or BYU. After struggling in his first five starts, Heaps was pulled in the third quarter against Utah State, with the Cougars trailing 24-13. Riley Nelson sparked a comeback win, and supplanted Heaps as the starter.
Relegated to the sideline, Heaps could only watch his dream job get taken by a player who was clearly out performing him. After Nelson got hurt two weeks ago, Heaps went back in as the starter. But as the Cougars (8-3) prepare for their regular-season finale at Hawaii on Saturday, Nelson may be healthy enough to play. If that is the case, coach Bronco Mendenhall said he would go with Nelson as his starter.
"Definitely this season hasn't taken the course I had planned or our team had planned, but I'm just taking it in stride with what has been given to me," Heaps said in a phone interview. "The opportunity to play last two games, just trying to make sure I was ready and all the hard work paid off. It's been a tough season. It hasn't been easy, but I'm working hard at continuing to get better. That's all I've been trying to do."
Heaps was 2-2 as the starter in the first four games, and the low point came in an embarrassing 54-10 loss to Utah, in which he had a fumble and two turnovers. He was only completing 53 percent of his passes in his first five starts, with three touchdown passes to five interceptions. In the eight games in which he has played, he has thrown an interception in seven of them.
When asked what has hurt him this season, Heaps said, "I think I was pressing, and I think at the beginning of the season, we were just all going through growing pains," Heaps said. "We were all learning how to play together. Everybody has blossomed as the season's gone on. We've all learned and have grown. For us to be at this point in the season it's exciting. As a collective group, we've gotten better as the season's gone on."
In his two starts with Nelson out, Heaps had six touchdown passes to two interceptions and played better. Of course, you have to consider the opponents -- BYU played Idaho and New Mexico State. Still, Heaps said he came into those games with a more relaxed attitude and took away plenty from his time on the bench.
"It's been a huge learning experience for me," Heaps said. "It hasn't been easy but definitely those situations can make you a worse quarterback or it can make you a better quarterback. I was determined to make it a better situation for myself, to look deep inside myself and see what I could do to get better. The biggest thing is how I approach the game. I'll be a beter player for it."
What happens next year is certainly up for debate. Heaps is a sophomore; Nelson is a junior. It appears Nelson will be the choice to be the starter headed into 2012. When asked about his future, Heaps declined to comment because "it detracts from the season we're having right now."
BYU will play in the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 to close out its first season as an independent. Should the Cougars beat Hawaii, they will have a chance for a 10-win season. Heaps will have had a hand in many of those wins, but the events of this year certainly will give him plenty to think about in the offseason.