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8 years of a revolving door at quarterback position has helped produce unpredictable results at BYU

Editor's note: Second of a two-part series exploring the need to develop multiple quarterbacks.

PROVO — Over the past eight seasons, eight different quarterbacks have each started at least a couple of games for BYU. Twice during that stretch, the Cougars have had to start three different QBs in a single campaign.

Most of BYU's best seasons historically have come when there is an undisputed, confident, experienced starter who stays healthy.

Quarterback instability can lead to general inconsistency — and it often produces unpredictable results. Here’s a look at how volatile the quarterback position at BYU has been the past eight years:

Year: 2010

Starting quarterbacks: 2 (Riley Nelson, Jake Heaps)

Record: (7-6)

With three-year starter Max Hall having graduated as BYU’s all-time winningest quarterback in 2009, the starting job was up for grabs before the season kicked off. Brad Sorensen, who was buried on the depth chart and redshirted in 2009, decided to transfer to Southern Utah after that campaign.

Sorensen became a three-year starter at SUU and threw for 9,455 yards and 61 touchdowns. He became the first Thunderbird player taken in the NFL draft when he was selected as a seventh-round pick of the San Diego Chargers.

At BYU, the Cougars staged a quarterback battle between sophomore Riley Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps, considered one of the top high school QBs in the nation.

Before the season began, coach Bronco Mendenhall announced that the coaching staff had decided to play both quarterbacks.

"We plan on playing both Riley and Jake at quarterback and feel both will be effective leading our team," he said. "Each is a talented player with a different style, which will pose some difficulties for opposing defenses. Both players are committed to this decision and excited to lead our team."

Said offensive coordinator Robert Anae said of the two-quarterback system: "We have two starters."

BYU's Jake Heaps directs his receivers. BYU vs. San Diego State football at LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo, Utah on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

In the opener against Washington, Nelson started and rotated with Heaps every series, and the two QBs finished with the same number of passing yards — 131 — in a 23-17 victory.

Nelson and Heaps alternated series in the first half at Air Force, and BYU took an early 14-7 lead. But then offense imploded. Heaps threw a late first-half interception and Nelson played the entire second half in a 35-14 setback.

A week later at Florida State, Nelson started again but suffered a shoulder injury, and Heaps played the rest of the way as the Seminoles pounded BYU, 34-10. With that, the two-quarterback experiment came to an end.

Heaps started the rest of the season and had plenty of ups and downs. But he and the Cougars finished strong after a miserable 1-4 start, winning six of their final eight games, including a New Mexico Bowl victory over UTEP to avoid a losing season.

Heaps, playing with a fractured rib sustained in a loss to Utah, threw four touchdown passes and BYU set a school bowl record for points scored in a 52-24 win against the Miners.

At the end of the season, Anae resigned after six years as BYU’s offensive coordinator.

Year: 2011

Starting quarterbacks: 2 (Jake Heaps, Riley Nelson)

Record: (10-3)

Going into the season, BYU’s first as an independent, Brandon Doman had been promoted to offensive coordinator from quarterbacks coach. And it appeared that Heaps had firmly established himself as the Cougars’ starting quarterback.

But the spring game provided signs of things to come.

The game appeared to have ended in a 10-10 tie, but Mendenhall decided to play an overtime period. Nelson ran 15 yards for a touchdown in OT, then completed a pass in the end zone to tight end Bryan Sampson for the game-winning two-point conversion in the White squad's narrow 18-17 victory over Heaps's Blue team.

The White team celebrated wildly and hoisted Paul Tidwell, the White team’s coach, on its shoulders.

Months later, BYU won its season-opener at Ole Miss thanks to a defensive touchdown by Kyle Van Noy late in the game. The offense continued to sputter in the second half of a heartbreaking one-point loss at Texas and a 54-10 throttling at the hands of Utah.

A couple of weeks later, the listless Cougar offense found itself down in the third quarter at home to Utah State when Doman replaced Heaps with Nelson.

Linebacker Brandon Ogletree told Mendenhall on the sideline, “Do you remember the spring game? I believe in Riley Nelson.”

BYU's Riley Nelson looks downfield on a run up the middle of the line as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Nelson, a Utah State transfer and Logan native, came off the bench and rallied the Cougars from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit, including an improbable 96-yard touchdown drive. In the end, BYU earned a dramatic 27-24 win.

The game-winning TD came with 11 seconds remaining, when tight end Marcus Mathews caught a 13-yard tipped pass from Nelson in the end zone.

Nelson displayed fire and intensity (dare we say grit?) that was missing from the Cougars for much of the game and he willed BYU to victory with his running and passing.

Nelson started the next five games, and he was replaced by Heaps when Nelson was injured during a 42-7 win over Idaho. Heaps started in a 42-7 victory over New Mexico State the following week.

Nelson finished the season as the starter with wins at Hawaii and in the Armed Forces Bowl against Tulsa. In the bowl game, the Cougars were trailing when faced second-and-2 at Golden Hurricane 2-yard line.

BYU's coaches had called a spike play to stop the clock. Instead, Nelson decided to call an audible and execute a "Red Alert," or a fake spike, and, with 11 seconds remaining, he connected with Cody Hoffman for the game-winning touchdown in a 24-21 triumph.

The Cougars finished the season 10-3 — their best record during the independence era.

A couple of days after the Hawaii game, Heaps announced he was transferring. He ended up at Kansas.

Year: 2012

Starting quarterbacks: 3 (Riley Nelson, Taysom Hill, James Lark)

Record: (8-5)

Nelson was the unquestioned starter going into the 2012 season, but Taysom Hill, a true freshman, showed flashes of his potential, throwing a touchdown pass on his first collegiate attempt against Washington State.

In a win over Weber State the next week, Nelson suffered a back injury, but he still started the next couple of games. The Cougars lost at Utah and fell at Boise State before Nelson was sidelined for two games due to the injury.

In his first start, at home against Hawaii, Hill threw for two touchdowns and rushed 15 times for 143 yards, including a 68-yard TD run.

Against Utah State, Hill was putting the finishing touches on a 6-3 win over Utah State. On the third-to-last play of the game, Hill absorbed a hard hit to his left knee, resulting in a torn LCL.

It was an injury that could have been avoided. Mendenhall called it a “miscommunication” between Hill and the coaching staff. The coaching staff signaled to Hill that the clock was running and Mendenhall said Hill thought that meant he should run the play that was called — a quarterback draw. The coaches apparently wanted Hill to line up in “victory” formation and kneel with the ball.

Hill was lost for the season.

Nelson returned to the starting lineup the next week against nationally ranked Oregon State in a game the Cougars lost, 42-24.

Weeks later, Nelson sustained a rib injury in a loss at San Jose State, which opened the door for senior James Lark to receive his first career start — in the final regular season game at New Mexico State.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback James Lark (7) rolls out during a game against Weber State University Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, in Provo, Utah. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

After waiting six years to start a game at BYU, Lark made the most of his opportunity, throwing for six touchdown passes — one shy of the school record. He completed 34 of 50 passes for 384 yards, and had zero turnovers, in a 50-14 win over the Aggies.

"It's a dream come true. That's the only way I can really describe it," Lark said afterward. "It's something I've been waiting for my whole life. I'm just happy."

Lark also started in BYU’s 23-6 Poinsettia Bowl win over San Diego State in a contest that saw Van Noy score a pair of fourth-quarter defensive touchdowns.

Alex Kuresa, who had joined the Cougars in 2011 as a quarterback, was switched to wide receiver and played sparingly there in 2012. During the offseason, Kuresa transferred to Portland State, where he became a two-year starter.

Year: 2013

Starting quarterbacks: 1 (Taysom Hill)

Record: (8-5)

In January, Anae returned to BYU after a stint at Arizona and reprised his role as offensive coordinator, implementing what he called the up-tempo "go fast, go hard" offense, tailored around Hill's skill set.

After the graduation of Nelson and Lark, Hill, a sophomore, became the starter and he never missed a game.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill (4) breaks away from Texas Longhorns safety Adrian Phillips (17) for a long touchdown run as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Things got off to a rough start in a 19-16 loss in the season-opener at Virginia but the next week at home against Texas, Hill burst onto the national scene, rushing for 259 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-21 win over the nationally ranked Longhorns. As a team, BYU ran for a school record 550 yards.

In 13 starts, Hill threw for 2,938 yards and 19 touchdowns while rushing for 1,344 yards and 10 touchdowns. In a thrilling 47-46 victory at Houston, Hill threw for 417 yards, including four touchdowns, and ran for 128 yards. He became one of only seven players in NCAA history to throw for more than 400 yards and rush for more than 100 yards in a single game.

Hill ended the year ranked No. 5 all-time at BYU for most offensive yards in a season (4,282). The only quarterbacks to amass more total offense in a season are Steve Young, Jim McMahon and Ty Detmer (twice).

Year: 2014

Starting quarterbacks: 2 (Taysom Hill, Christian Stewart)

Record: (8-5)

During the offseason, BYU saw two backup quarterbacks transfer — Ammon Olsen to Southern Utah and Billy Green to Weber State. Green burned his redshirt in mop-up duty in a game as a true freshman against Idaho State in 2013.

Olsen, who backed up Hill in 2013 and played in four games (he only threw three passes that season) ended up throwing for 3,049 yards as a junior and 3,344 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a senior and at SUU.

With Hill back at the controls for his junior year, the Cougars opened the season with four consecutive victories, including a 41-7 thumping of Texas.

Entering the Utah State game, BYU was nationally ranked and Hill was regarded as a Heisman Trophy candidate, highlighted by his famous “leap of faith” touchdown against the Longhorns.

But everything came crashing down in the second quarter when Hill suffered a leg fracture, his second season-ending injury.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Christian Stewart runs the ball during the football game against UNLV in the LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, in Provo. | Hugh Carey, Deseret News

Replacing Hill was senior Christian Stewart, who grew up in Orem as a big Cougar fan and walked on at BYU. He ended up transferring to Snow College, where he put up big numbers. Stewart returned to BYU as a walk-on and didn’t receive a scholarship until the summer of 2014.

As it turned out, Stewart may have saved the Cougars' season as he guided the BYU offense through the final eight games. He lost his first three starts, but he played well as the Cougars tried to rebound from the devastating loss of Hill. Stewart helped BYU qualify for another bowl appearance.

The Cougars lost in double overtime in the Miami Beach (Brawl) Bowl to Memphis, 55-48. In his final game, Stewart completed 23 of 48 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns and three interceptions.

For the season, Stewart completed 199 of 348 passes for 2,621 yards with 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Year: 2015

Starting quarterbacks: 2 (Taysom Hill, Tanner Mangum)

Record: (9-4)

In the spring, Taysom Hill was still recovering from his leg injury while McCoy Hill suffered a foot injury on the first day of spring ball. Walk-on Hunter Moore was the only eligible quarterback available for 11-on-11 drills.

In an odd set of circumstances, due to injuries and inexperience at quarterback, Stewart participated in spring practices though he didn't have any eligibility remaining.

In the season-opener at Nebraska, Hill looked sharp both throwing the ball and running before he suffered a Lisfranc injury on a touchdown run in the second quarter. True freshman Tanner Mangum replaced him for good in the second half.

Mangum, who hadn't participated in spring drills because he didn't return home from his LDS mission to Chile until June, led the Cougars to victory on a memorable last-second Hail Mary touchdown pass to Mitch Mathews before a crowd of 90,000 at Memorial Stadium.

Mangum ended up starting the rest of the season.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Tanner Mangum (12) launches a pass downfield as BYU and Boise State play Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

After the win at Nebraska, Mangum threw another improbable touchdown pass late in the game to beat Boise State. He played well in a close loss at UCLA. At Michigan the next week, Mangum and the offense were stymied. He completed 12 of 28 passes for 55 yards as the Wolverines manhandled BYU, 31-0. The Cougars' 105 yards of total offense were the fewest in a game since 1974.

In October, Mangum sustained a hamstring injury against East Carolina and was replaced by true freshman Beau Hoge, but Mangum returned to rally BYU to a fourth-quarter victory.

Before the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah, Mendenhall resigned to take the head coaching job at Virginia. Most of the staff decided to join Mendenhall at Virginia, but all the coaches remained for the bowl game. The Cougars fell behind 35-0 in the first quarter before rallying. BYU lost to the Utes, 35-28, and finished with a 9-4 record.

Mangum turned in the best season by a true freshman quarterback in school history, throwing for 3,377 yards and 23 touchdown and he was named the 2015 Freshman of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus.

Year: 2016

Starting quarterbacks: 2 (Taysom Hill, Tanner Mangum)

Record: (9-4)

Hill returned for his fifth and final season with a new coaching staff, including head coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Ty Detmer.

Hill didn’t miss any playing time that season until the fourth quarter of the final regular-season game against Utah State.

Early in the quarter, Hill suffered his fourth season-ending injury on an aggressive play that characterized his BYU career. He tried to leap over an Aggie defender at the end of a 12-yard run near the goal line. Hill crashed hard to the turf with his weight coming down on his left elbow. He sustained a left elbow strain, and his season, and college career, was done.

Of Hill’s four season-ending injuries, eerily, three of them came against Utah State.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Taysom Hill (7) delivers a pass as BYU and Mississippi State play in Provo at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Friday, Oct. 14, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Hill won 23 games as BYU’s starting quarterback, and he accounted for 9,744 yards of total offense, which ranks him No. 4 in school history, one spot ahead of Jim McMahon.

In his career, Hill completed 609 of 1047 passes for 6,929 yards, 43 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. He rushed for 2,815 yards and recorded the most rushing yards of any quarterback in school history and is No. 5 among all rushers at BYU.

Hill finished with 75 touchdowns (43 passing, 32 rushing), good for No. 5 all-time at BYU.

Mangum got his only start of the season in the Poinsettia Bowl, where he helped the Cougars beat Wyoming, 24-21.

Year: 2017

Starting quarterbacks: 3 (Tanner Mangum, Beau Hoge, Joe Critchlow)

Record: (4-9)

Entering the season, Mangum was the clear-cut starter.

In the Poinsettia Bowl and in the spring game, Mangum didn't look like the 2015 version of himself, but many attributed that to the heavy rain that fell and the sloppy conditions in both games.

As it turned out, the struggles of Mangum and the offense in 2017 didn't have anything to do with the elements. From the outset, the Cougar offense stumbled and looked out of sync.

Did Mangum regress after sitting on the bench for most of the 2016? Or was he unable to grasp Detmer's pro-style offensive scheme? Or did he not have enough consistent playmakers around him?

BYU opened the season by scoring only 20 points in a win against an FCS opponent, Portland State, and then got blanked by Louisiana State, 27-0.

Mangum suffered an ankle injury late in a loss to Utah and was sidelined for a month. In his place, Hoge, a sophomore, started in losses to national power Wisconsin and Utah State. Against the Aggies, the Cougars led 21-7 early in the second quarter, and Hoge had the offensive moving the ball. But Hoge suffered an injury and was replaced by Koy Detmer Jr.

USU erased the 14-point deficit and scored 26 unanswered points as the Aggies earned a 40-24 win. BYU coughed up seven turnovers that night.

Mangum returned in early October, but the Cougars continued losing. BYU suffered through its longest losing streak — seven consecutive defeats — since 1968. The Cougars finally broke that streak and earned their first victory of the season against an FBS foe by beating a one-win San Jose State team.

In a loss at Fresno State, Mangum (Achilles) and Hoge (toe) suffered season-ending injuries.

Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Joe Critchlow (11) throws in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

That made true freshman Joe Critchlow, just months removed from missionary service, the new starter. He won his first start at UNLV, throwing for 140 yards and a touchdown. Squally Canada rushed for 213 yards and a TD.

The next week at home against UMass, the Cougars could manage only 10 points in a 16-10 setback to the Minutemen. BYU closed the season with a win at Hawaii. The Cougars finished with a 4-9 record, their first losing season since 2004 and their first nine-loss campaign since 1955.

A couple of days after the season finale in Honolulu, Detmer was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties. Weeks later, Sitake hired Jeff Grimes as the new offensive coordinator.

Now, Grimes faces a big decision when it comes to finding a starting quarterback — among the candidates are Mangum, Critchlow, Hoge and true freshman Zach Wilson — and the pecking order of the backups for the 2018 season.

If recent history is any guide, it's likely BYU will need more than one quarterback to get through the season.