PROVO, Utah — BYU quarterbacks Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps are making what was already a tough decision for Cougar coaches even tougher.
Nelson and Heaps combined to lead the offense to five touchdown drives during Tuesday's practice.
"They were great today," said quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. "I couldn't be more pleased with where they are."
Nelson completed 4-of-6 passes for 63 yards and three touchdowns and rushed six times for 48 yards. Heaps was 10-of-11 for 86 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
"We could have had one more touchdown, but Jake had a mishap in the 'blue' zone and threw an interception (to cornerback Brian Logan)," Doman said. "But, gosh, it was a heck of a drive."
The coaching staff is carefully evaluating both quarterbacks, to see if one emerges as a clear-cut starter. Doman said there's no real separation between Nelson, who's a junior, and Heaps, who's a true freshman.
"They're both playing so darn good. They're both so different and they have such unique talents. They're so different, and yet they're exposing their strengths and really doing a good job of what they do well. And they're moving the team," Doman said.
"We're trying to make a decision based off of who's going to drive the team, who's going to convert first downs and who's going to score touchdowns. And these two guys are doing a great job. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out."
This scenario is a new one for Doman. Since he became BYU's quarterbacks coach in 2005, he has entered each season with an undisputed starter — first John Beck (2005-06), then Max Hall (2007-09). Beck started every game but one in those two years (due to an injury), while Hall started every game the past three seasons.
Is Doman hoping that one of his quarterbacks outperforms the other between now and the end of fall camp?
"I don't know we care that one's better than the other. It would be great to have two that are dominant players and two that we could win a championship with," he said. "I think both of these guys are high caliber, as good as anybody in our league."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall has said the Cougars may utilize a two-quarterback system this season and play both Nelson and Heaps.
"I'm not opposed to that," Doman said. "But I certainly don't know how to do that. I've never been in a system that's done it. It would be venturing down a new path for me as a quarterback coach. I certainly would be comfortable with what both (Nelson and Heaps) do and their strengths.
"I don't know how it's all going to happen from here on out, but at this point, both of those guys are capable of being our starter. Now it's a matter of deciding who that guy is, and how we're going to scheme and game-plan. Right now, we're not stressing about that."
Doman said he hasn't talked to Nelson and Heaps about the possibility of them both playing this season.
"They're competing and battling to be the starter," Doman said. "If one emerges as a starter, we'll name him. Right now, we're at Day 3 of 29 practices. We're getting as much volume as we can get so we can make an accurate decision."
Once spring ball ended in mid-April, both Nelson and Heaps had plenty to work on over the summer. Doman is happy with the improvement they've shown during that time.
Nelson, who's known for his scrambling and running ability, has had to adjust his playing style.
"We have a certain offense, and Riley has to fit into that funnel to be successful here and be a quarterback here," Doman said. "We've spent a lot of time cleaning up his overall passing technique. He had a real low release in the spring, and he's worked on getting his release higher. He's a short guy, so he has to bring the ball over the top of his ear. He's got more velocity, touch and accuracy. He's really improved in the pass game."
For Heaps, the focus has been on understanding the offense.
Cougar Camp Report
Day 3: Tuesday marked the first day for BYU players to practice in shoulder pads.
Standouts: The offense scored six touchdowns during 11-on-11 and "blue" zone work. Freshman tight end Austin Holt hauled in a 21-yard pass from Riley Nelson; freshman running back Joshua Quezada caught a 12-yard TD pass from Nelson; freshman quarterback Jake Heaps threw an 18-yard TD pass to freshman wide receiver Ross Apo. Senior cornerback Brian Logan intercepted Heaps in the end zone.
Injuries: Cornerback Robbie Buckner (sore knee) and linebacker Aveni Leung Wai (hamstring) were both sidelined.
Next up: The Cougars are scheduled to practice Wednesday morning. They will stage their first practice in full pads on Thursday.