PROVO — The 2009 season hasn't started, but the 2010 battle to replace BYU quarterback Max Hall has, in a way, already begun.
Practices last week featured an intriguing confluence of the past, present and future. Hall, a senior who owns a 21-5 record as a starter, was throwing passes like the seasoned veteran that he is. Leading the third-team offense was returned missionary and Utah State transfer Riley Nelson. Roaming the sidelines in street clothes was Jake Heaps, who has led Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., to a 28-0 record and two state championships as a starter. Heaps, who verbally committed to the Cougars last June, is set to enroll at BYU in January and compete for the starting job for the 2010 season.
While Heaps is back in his home state getting ready for his senior year, Nelson is working to learn the Cougar offense. For now, he's No. 3 on the depth chart behind Hall and senior Brenden Gaskins.
Yet based on his performance in recent practices (he completed 5-of-6 passes for 61 yards and a touchdown during Monday's morning session), it might not be long before Nelson, a sophomore, becomes Hall's backup.
"Not yet," coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday, "but we're really pleased with what Riley is doing. His leadership skills and his poise and his knowledge of the offense is getting better. He had a really nice drive today. The timetable is too hard to say when it will happen, but I really like the way he is playing."
Mendenhall has said he'd like to see Nelson play 8-12 quarters this season. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder started the final eight games for Utah State in 2006 before leaving on a mission, and he could be the only BYU quarterback with Division I experience entering next season.
"The plan right now is to get him into some games, let him play, be in the stadium, experience the fans and listen to the coaches talking to him on the field before it's his team," said quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. "Then, from there, he'll have to compete for the (starting) job. We'll have some good battles for the upcoming seasons, and we'll see how it goes from there."
Nelson couldn't participate in spring ball because he returned home from his mission just days earlier. But he spent plenty of time on campus during the summer.
"He was here every day. He was out here even when I didn't know he was out here," Hall said. "I'd show up to go throw with guys and he'd already be here working on stuff. It's nice to see guys show up and want to be good. He's a great kid. He's learning. He's very smart and he's football-savvy. He's still got a ways to go with his reads and his throws, but that's just how it is. I think he's going to have a chance to be a very good football player, a very good quarterback here at BYU."
As per BYU's policy, the media is not allowed to talk to first-year players like Nelson until after the first game of the season.
Last Friday, Nelson led the second-team offense to its first touchdown of fall camp.
"I was real pleased to see him show poise and show composure," Doman said. "He's a very conscientious young man. He's very articulate, very smart. He's cerebral — a 4.0 student. Those types of things about him have shown a real consistency in his game."
Cougar coaches are looking to groom Nelson for a major role, but they're willing to be patient.
"I don't think we'll see the real Riley Nelson until year two or three," Mendenhall said, adding that Nelson is improving every day. "He's becoming, certainly, more confident within the offense. He doesn't lack confidence as an individual. He has great leadership. The team loves him and our coaches think he's excellent. He's understanding what we're trying to do and he's more comfortable."
Certainly, the future looks bright at the quarterback position at BYU. In addition to Nelson and Heaps, two more highly touted quarterbacks who have redshirted are scheduled to return home from their missions in the coming months — James Lark (December) and Jason Munns (April).
Doman is thrilled with the quarterbacks he's working with now and will be working with in the future.
"In the end, when you start evaluating a quarterback, you look at how big they are, how athletic they are, and how well they throw it," he said. "Then you start working your way down to all the intangibles. We're going to start with the intangibles, then work our way from there. When you look at some of the kids that we're recruiting, and you look at the young men in the program, that's what they possess. That's what we're interested in. Riley has those types of attributes."