Now that the basketball team has made its exit from the NCAA tournament, Cougar fans have shifted their focus to what looks to be one of the most intense quarterback competitions in recent BYU history. Simply put, Riley Nelson is the veteran, Jake Heaps is the newcomer and James Lark is the wild card. (Jason Munns will join them in the fall, but I’m saying right now that there is no way he makes a crack at the top of the depth chart.)
There is a good case for any of these three to take the reins at QB next season — and another one for why they shouldn’t. Who will it be? Read the arguments below and you make the call.
Why he will start: If there is anything we can observe from the Bronco Mendenhall era, it’s that when it comes down to making a position decision he will go with leadership and experience. Nelson’s biggest advantage is that he has been with the program for a full year as a backup to Max Hall. He has plenty of reps in the system and even got some significant mop-up minutes. The offensive system that is in place right now isn’t the most complicated, but having experience counts for a lot.
Aside from his familiarity, Nelson is the most mobile of the three quarterbacks. Scouts will tell you that he doesn’t have the best physical tools, but he just makes plays. If you watched him play in any of the games last year, you saw that he wasn’t a speedster, but he was able to take draws and option plays for good chunks of yardage. The last time the Cougars had a dual threat QB was back in 2001 when Brandon Doman lead one of the most dangerous offenses in recent history and, like Doman, Nelson will have an all-conference back to help carry the load.
Why he won’t: There is no question that Nelson lacks the arm strength to make all the throws that are required in the offense. He has a very slow left-handed delivery and his accuracy pales in comparison to Max Hall. While he did a great job running draw plays, he struggled to hit receivers running basic routes. About half of his throws look good, while the other half resemble wounded ducks. A good example of this came in the Wyoming game where a fade route pass fell dangerously short and was easily picked off. Offensive coaches would have to seriously adjust the playbook to make it more Nelson-friendly. I’m hoping that after another year of practice and throwing drills he will be able to hone his accuracy but, based on what we saw last season, Nelson could be the worst passer in the group.
Why he will start: This kid is a winner. Period. Looking at his high school pedigree makes me sick because I only had one winning season. This kid had three, two of which were perfect. In fact, the only game he ever lost was to California high school powerhouse Oaks Christian. For those keeping score, he was 31-1 overall and a staggering 3-0 in state championship games. I don’t care where you play, those numbers are ridiculous.
The reason why he was so dominant is the fact that he has confidence oozing out his ears. He is the dictionary definition of swagger. Just look up any YouTube video and you will notice something different about Heaps. He takes control of the game with the poise and leadership of a college upperclassman. You’d think he would stay quiet once he came to BYU and became a lowly freshman, but on his signing day he talked national championships. If anything, the coaches should play him just to see if he does have a ceiling. I haven’t even mentioned his clockwork consistency and needle-threading accuracy. He doesn’t throw the deep ball with ease, but everything else about his game is completely polished. Heaps is the player you absolutely hate as an opposing fan because of his arrogance — and the fact that he can back it up.
Why he won’t: Even if Heaps is one of the most decorated high school quarterbacks this year, history tells us that true freshman quarterbacks don’t have a whole lot of success. Just look at USC’s Matt Barkley and Michigan’s Tate Forcier. Both QB’s burst onto the scene with impressive wins in the beginning of the season but soon faded into mediocrity. Ohio State quarterback Terelle Pryor played a significant role in his freshman season, but didn’t realize his full potential until his performance in the Rose Bowl. It takes a lot for a kid to come into a big-time Division I program, especially one like BYU because of the school’s reputation for quarterback excellence. It is no secret that BYU is only as good as their quarterback. To have that kind of pressure and expectation thrust upon you at such a young age could be costly. If Bronco sees that Heaps isn’t 100 percent ready to be the team leader, then he won’t give him that responsibility.
Why he will start: For a guy who seems to be lost in all the media hype of Heaps and Nelson, James Lark easily has the biggest arm out of the three and that alone could give him the job. While his high school numbers are comparable to those of Nelson (both are tied for the Utah state record for touchdown passes at 79), there is no comparison in arm strength. He can make accurate throws to all parts of the field with ease — something the other two can’t do.
Also, very few will recall this, but Lark was a prized recruit coming out of high school. He came to football camps in Provo and wowed coaches with his arm and had an offer on the table early from the Cougars. Due to a limited number of scholarships they weren’t able to offer Nelson. Lark didn’t have the numbers that Nelson did because he wasn’t nearly as talented, but BYU saw his ability to throw the 35-yard post pattern on a rope. And don’t assume that he is immobile. In his junior year, he racked up 650 yards and 7 TD’s on the ground. If the coaches are looking for a QB that can make all the throws, then this is their man.
Why he won’t: Like I said earlier, most of the attention for the QB spot is between Heaps and Nelson. There might be a good reason for that. Lark just got back from a mission and it takes a while for a player to get back into playing shape and mentality. Just look at the basketball team’s Jackson Emery. Last year, he played a significant role but didn’t really look comfortable until about mid-season. It will take most of spring and fall camp for Lark to shake off the rust, which is also the time the he needs to be proving he is best at his position.
Also, just because you have the tools doesn’t mean you will translate into a successful player. Just look at former UCLA (and, briefly, BYU) QB Ben Olsen, who was widely considered to be the best player in the 2002 signing class. Many cite Olsen’s constant struggle with injuries that led to his demise, but even when healthy he could never live up to expectations. As for Lark, we just don’t know if he is a proven winner.
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