2012 Preview: Quarterbacks
The 2011 season turned out to be quite a roller coaster, as Jake Heaps entered the season as an entrenched starter, but struggled more and more as the year wore on. Enter Riley Nelson, and the Cougars managed a ten-win but turbulent season behind the once again split leadership. Now Heaps has transferred, and Nelson finally gets his chance as a senior to have the team all to himself, as the Cougars embark on their second year as an independent. The coming season features a more challenging schedule, particularly on the road, so the Cougs have their work cut out for them.
When considering players who would have started all season but were injured along the way and players who started at least six games, BYU has 13 full-year starters coming back in 2012. There are 6 returning starters on offense, while 7 starters return on defense, along with 8 other players who also started at least one game at some point during the 2011 season. There are also 2 return missionaries back who were multi-year starters prior to leaving.
I wrote in this space a year ago that it goes without saying that the most controversial part of BYUs 2010 season was the deployment of a two quarterback system. Who would have believed, given Heaps' designation as the starter and his strong finish to that season, capped with a fine bowl game, that he would be unseated as the starter and in another program before the end of the 2011 campaign? And yet there it is. The result is a returning redshirt senior who will get one more crack at glory, this time with his one and only chance to pilot the Cougars from the beginning, and alone. Given the events at quarterback over the last two seasons, perhaps BYU fans will be in for a welcome reprieve from QB drama, for at least one year.
One starter returns at quarterback, since Heaps left for Kansas. Naturally the most recognizable player on the team, that player is Riley Nelson. Last year Nelson started 7 games and played in 12. He completed 116 of 202 passes for 1,717 yards, and 19 touchdowns, with 7 interceptions. Nelson also rushed for 392 yards and 1 touchdown; when sack yardage is removed, Nelson gained 503 yards on the ground, more than any player last year except J.J. DiLuigi.
The only other quarterback who returns with game experience is James Lark. The redshirt senior Lark played in 2 games last year, completing 2 of 6 passes for 21 yards, with 2 rushes for 12 yards.
The other quarterback who has been with the team but without playing time is redshirt junior Jason Munns, who was a backup quarterback last year. Munns has yet to take a live game snap.
Newcomers at quarterback include true freshman scholarship returned missionary Taysom Hill and true sophomore returned missionary Ammon Olsen, who played at SUU prior to his mission.
For the first time in over two seasons, the answer to this question is quite straightforward. The starter is going to be Riley Nelson. It's also not a difficult call for the backup quarterback spot. James Lark will be filling that role. There is some irony in the fact that two players who faced off for a state championship are 1-2 on the depth chart, and the player who was not offered a scholarship out of high school is number 1. One wonders if Lark feels like Nelson has his number, since he lost in their championship faceoff. In any event, it's good for BYU to have two players there. Things become a little more interesting at the third spot. Will the third quarterback be the hyped freshman Taysom Hill, or the steady Jason Munns, who has been with the program for so long? Or, will Ammon Olsen make a dark horse run for it? For once it will be nice for Cougar fans to only worry about the third stringer in fall camp. The other two will provide depth.
The depth might be necessary. It is a tough read on the outlook for quarterback this year. There are two major and obvious concerns. The first concern is whether Nelson can stay healthy. To this point in his BYU career, he has not been able to stay on the field, in spite of his apparent toughness. The second concern is whether the Cougars will be led by Hawaii Riley Nelson, or Tulsa Riley Nelson. There can be no questioning the guy's heart and leadership. He righted a very turbulent ship and pulled a nice season out of what could have been a catastrophe, and likely would have been but for his insertion into the starting lineup. Yet, the consistency was not there. BYU won the Armed Forces Bowl, but Nelson's performance was poor, particularly in the passing game. They shouldn't have needed a last second miracle to win the game, a fact Nelson himself acknowledged afterwards. If Nelson can play consistently like he did against Hawaii and avoid getting hurt, the outlook is good. If not and Tulsa-like performances start to pop up, no one can tell what the result will be. Should injury strike yet again, then Cougar fans will finally get to see what James Lark can do. Unfortunately for Lark, if that happens he won't have any time to grow into his new job. It will be do or die.
There are a lot of experienced players back for BYU's offense, and a number of budding stars particularly at the skill positions. Having said that, the offense doesnt look as tough on paper as the extremely veteran defense. The wide receivers are probably the strongest position going into fall camp. The running backs are young and need to prove themselves, and the tight ends still need to show the talent stockpile can be great. The offensive line has got a lot of talent and a couple of mainstays, but with the spring health issues they will need to get a jump on the learning curve to incorporate two new starters before the season starts. And quarterback appears to be a big wildcard. A player with moxie in spades finally gets the team to himself, but whether he can play consistently and stay healthy are big questions. In the end, the Cougars have all the pieces to have a lights out offense, but they need to see improvement from specific position groups and keep their leader on the field and playing well to translate that into dominance.
Last year was about as difficult as a 10 win season can be, and uncertainties with conference and championship realignment coupled with an ugly loss to Utah led to a lot of fans having a bitter taste despite the double digit wins. The good news is that a new season is approaching, and there can be no doubt that BYU has purged the most troubling aspect of the last two years in the quarterback controversy. Come the end of August, the Cougars get a fresh start. The away schedule is difficult, so they need to be mentally strong in particular this year, with a pair of brutal back to back road trips versus Utah and then Boise State five days later, while in November traveling to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech in successive weeks. On the other hand, BYU fans ought to see a lot of home wins this year.
Barring some unforeseen circumstance, the defense should be excellent this season and keep BYU in most if not all games. The Cougar defense is stocked with experienced and talented players. Most notable special teams faces are back, and will hopefully play more consistently with another year under their belts. The offense has great potential if certain position groups can play better with a year of experience and hopefully many fewer injuries. One thing is certain, Nelson leading the team will not hurt for entertainment value when he's on the field. Should he stay healthy and play well, who can doubt but that Cougar fans will rally around a one-time underdog and backup? In under three months time it will all start to unfold against the red Cougars from Washington State.
You can read Part 7, Running Backs, here: http://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=8748272
Part 6, Wide Receivers/Tight Ends, here: http://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=8742119
Part 5, Offensive Line, here: http://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=8737148
Part 4, Special Teams, here: http://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=8730648
Part 3, Defensive Line, here: http://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=8724450
Part 2, Linebackers, here: http://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=8719026
And Part 1, Defensive Backs, here: http://www.cougarboard.com/board/message.html?id=8714262