Riley Nelson is now in his fourth season at BYU. But believe it or not, this is actually the first time the starting quarterback job is his and his alone in the spring.
The Cougars hope that means a return to the high-flying offense that fans have come to expect in Provo.
No question BYU has sputtered the last two seasons in what was always an area of strength, primarily because it has not been able to rely on an experienced signal caller. Nelson and Jake Heaps traded starts, allowing for no time to build chemistry, cohesion and a true understanding of the offense.
Nelson, in particular, has been at a disadvantage the last two springs. He had to split reps with Heaps in 2010 as they battled for the No. 1 spot. Last season, he only got 20 percent of the reps as the backup to Heaps.
So for the first time since he has been on campus, Nelson is the one getting the majority of reps during the spring. At BYU, that means about 80 percent of the snaps.
"He needs to get as much volume as he can," offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said in a recent phone interview. "That's how we do it here. For 30 years, BYU has trained quarterbacks by giving them a high volume. This offense really requires a quarterback that has had some experience, and who has been able to get the volume necessary. So this is a much needed time of the year for him."
Anybody who watched the second half of last season understands that Nelson brings an undeniable winner's mentality to the Cougars. All the adversity he has faced has changed his outlook, and also given his teammates a reason to rally around him. The way he was able to lead the Cougars back against Utah State, and in the bowl win against Tulsa was illustration yet again of the intangibles his coaches always praise.
But for a deeper understanding of what he can bring to BYU on a full-time basis, this stat is more telling. Nelson replaced Heaps in the starting lineup in Week 6. In the first five games with Heaps leading the way, BYU was ranked No. 78 in the nation in third-down conversions (39 percent). After Nelson took over, BYU was No. 1 in the nation over the next seven games.
In October, BYU converted 66 percent on third down, and in November the Cougars converted 70 percent. BYU ended the season ranked No. 5 overall on third downs, converting 51 percent of the time. Just look at that jump in the span of eight games. The reason -- Nelson brings his athleticism into play. He can make nothing into a little something, keeping BYU out of second-and-long, and third-and long. His ability to run and make plays also gives him a better shot to convert on third down.
Those are clear answers for folks who still wonder whether Nelson has the capability of following in the footsteps of all the past BYU quarterback greats. Can he throw for 3,000 yards and help BYU average 40 points a game? Doman says absolutely.
For his part, Nelson has really taken to studying film and understanding where he can be better. While he had a solid understanding of the playbook last season, game experience will help him take that next step, particularly when it comes to recognizing check downs to his backs.
"It's akin to a surgeon," Nelson said in a phone interview. "Geniuses can tell you every procedure there is, but it's the surgeon that gets in there and if all of a sudden something unexpected happens, he can use that depth of knowledge to react. Before I got thrown in last year, I knew the playbook in and out, but there are times I'm sitting there watching myself on film saying, 'What are you doing? You know you have to check down to the back side.' Where I wasn't doing that last year, I hope I can do that this year with as many reps as I can get and still have the play making ability if things break down."
The goal is to get to a completion percentage of 65 percent. Nelson was at 57 percent last year, throwing for 1,717 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Already, Nelson has watched successful quarterbacks in this system, including Max Hall and John Beck. He also has watched Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to study what each of them does so well at the quarterback position.
BYU wants to work in Nelson's athleticism, so the Cougars are going to incorporate more play action, movement, naked boots, and sprint outs because he's really good at them.
But there is no question the base offense at BYU is a passing offense.
"We have to get him real confident in getting the ball out on time and making as many good decisions as he can in this drop-back style of offense,"Doman said. "If he can get ahold of that, all the rest will be icing on the cake for him."
And for BYU.