Ross Apo was going to be a Texas Longhorn. Of that he was certain. Having committed to coach Mack Brown during his junior year of high school in Arlington, Texas, the speedy receiver was in love with his home state team’s mystique and aura, its flashy burnt orange uniforms, “Hook ’Em Horns” hand signs and distinctive fight song. He was mesmerized by its four national championships, 100,000-plus seat stadium and the way teammates’ eyes would raise when he told them he was bound for Austin to play for mighty UT.

Then some hotshot prep quarterback from Washington by the name of Jake Heaps called him — again, and again, and again. The message from a fellow junior with whom he had little in common, save that they were both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and grew up attending youth football camps at BYU, was always the same.

“Jake would say, ‘Come to BYU with me, and let’s start something special,’” Apo said recently, recalling those conversations 12 years ago with Heaps. “He was relentless.”

Eventually, Heaps talked Apo into joining him and another outstanding Latter-day Saint player — linebacker Kyle Van Noy — who had committed to BYU the previous year, but had to wait a year to enroll due to some off-the-field issues, at Heaps’ home in Issaquah, Washington, to train together.

Apo agreed, and made the long trip to the Seattle area. He became close friends with Heaps and Van Noy, but still wasn’t totally buying Heaps’ sales pitch. “BYU over Texas? No way,” he said to himself. Finally, he took Heaps’ advice and decided to withdraw his pledge to Texas and at least consider the Cougars.

“He sent me like 50 texts (asking), ‘Did you call him? Did you call him?’ Did you decommit?’” Apo said in 2013 before a BYU-Texas game in Provo. “I finally called coach Brown. … Hardest phone call I’ve ever made. He just got quiet and said some things I probably shouldn’t repeat.”

A few weeks later, in early June 2009, Apo sat next to Heaps and another high-profile Latter-day Saint recruit, Oaks Christian (California) linebacker Zac Stout, at Iggy’s Sports Grill in downtown Salt Lake City and said he was flipping to BYU.

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“My switch was pretty tough,” Apo told the Deseret News. “It would be like a guy from Utah committing to BYU and then flipping to Texas. That’s what it was like. Jake played a big role in it. I am not sure if people realize how big of a role Jake had in building that 2010 signing class.”

“Man, Jake (Heaps) could do recruiting for anybody. That’s probably what he should do, and he would be a millionaire. I don’t know how many other guys Jake contacted to get them to come to BYU, but he had a lot of influence to get guys to go there, like me.” — Former BYU receiver Ross Apo

When 24 players signed the first Wednesday in February 2010, joining Heaps, Apo and running back Josh Quezada — who were mid-year enrollees, having graduated high school early — the class was ranked No. 22 nationally by and No. 24 by

BYU hasn’t come close to the top 25 in the national recruiting rankings since. There are multiple reasons why, hashed out ad nauseam the past decade on sports talk radio shows, message boards and the like. It all begs the question: Will BYU ever be able to replicate its 2010 recruiting success?

Will Zach Wilson’s success pay dividends?

Ask any college football coach, and he will tell you that recruiting is the lifeblood of the program, especially at the quarterback position. That was evidenced for the millionth time last season as three-star recruit Zach Wilson led BYU to an 11-1 season and lofty final ranking.

Wilson wasn’t nearly the type of national recruit Heaps was, and his 2018 signing class was ranked just 78th nationally. That class also included two-star walk-on Dax Milne, three-star receiver Gunner Romney and a bunch of prospects who are just now returning from church missions, such as three-star tight end Dallin Holker.

By any measure, the Cougars overachieved, easy schedule or not.

BYU’s 2019 class was ranked 84th by industry leader and its 2020 class was ranked 81st.

In announcing the bulk of its 2021 signing class last month when the early signing period began Dec. 16 — the remainder will be finalized Feb. 3 on the traditional national signing day — BYU coaches said Wilson’s performance and the Cougars’ outstanding season gave them a recruiting bump, but one that might not be fully realized until next year.

The two biggest prizes of the class, Timpview defenders Logan Fano and Raider Damuni, have said the Cougars’ recent success is one reason why they kept commitments to BYU coach Kalani Sitake made years ago.

Even with the late additions of Fano, Damuni and another mission-bound Utah County prep star, Lone Peak’s John Henry Daley, this year’s class is currently ranked just 73rd. It includes no prospects rated higher than three stars, and no quarterback, although returned missionary Jacob Conover, a former four-star recruit from Chandler, Arizona, who joined the program in September, could easily be considered that one-QB-per-year signee because he will be a redshirt freshman this fall.

As the years pile up and BYU finds itself still yearning for membership in a Power Five conference, it is becoming more and more evident that the 2010 haul was one for the ages, and will probably never be duplicated in Provo.

But the story of how it was assembled, what it became, and why it fractured more than the typical class at BYU deserves to be told.

From Iggy’s to an inglorious departure

Forever defined by that circus-like ceremony at Iggy’s and Heaps’ departure from the program after he was benched his sophomore season, the class gets a bad rap, many who were part of it say.

“Yeah, for sure. We definitely had a lot of guys that made it to the NFL, and a lot of guys that should have, but didn’t pan out the way everyone thought they would,” said linebacker Alani Fua, who would go on to play in the NFL. “We lost some guys, and our record wasn’t the greatest, but overall we were still successful, that class of 2010.”

BYU’s Jake Heaps directs his receivers against San Diego State University at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010.
BYU’s Jake Heaps directs his receivers against San Diego State University at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Heaps declined to be interviewed for this story through a third party, but told the Deseret News in 2018 that his intentions in putting together the news conference at Iggy’s were misconstrued and “one of the things in my football career that might frustrate me the most.”

He told the Deseret News’ Jeff Call he did not do it to bring attention to himself, but to “make something big and cool for BYU … and make a splash for the school.”

“Yeah, I really do think this class ended up better than people think. That class produced quite a few guys who played professionally.” — Paul Tidwell

Perhaps forgotten is that Heaps’ efforts that day, and the next when the three new commits attended a junior day activity in Provo to recruit other prospects to BYU, worked like he hoped they would.

“Jake got a lot of those guys,” said Apo of Heaps, still a friend and currently a quarterback instructor and sports radio talk show host in Seattle. “Man, Jake could do recruiting for anybody. That’s probably what he should do, and he would be a millionaire. I don’t know how many other guys Jake contacted to get them to come to BYU, but he had a lot of influence to get guys to go there, like me.”

Fua says Apo, Stout (his high school teammate at national power Oaks Christian) and Heaps called him regularly before signing day to keep him in the fold, along with plenty of coaches.

One of those coaches was then-recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach Paul Tidwell, who got out of coaching in 2015 when Bronco Mendenhall left for Virginia and is now coordinator of student-athlete welfare at BYU.

BYU record year-by-year, bowl result, since 2010

2010 — 7-6 (def. UTEP 52-24 in New Mexico Bowl)

2011 — 10-3 (def. Tulsa 24-21 in Armed Forces Bowl)

2012 — 8-5 (def. San Diego State 23-6 in Poinsettia Bowl)

2013 — 8-5 (lost to Washington 31-16 in Fight Hunger Bowl)

2014 — 8-5 (lost to Memphis 55-48 2OT in Miami Beach Bowl)

2015 — 9-4 (lost to Utah 35-28 in Las Vegas Bowl)

2016 — 9-4 (def. Wyoming 24-21 in Poinsettia Bowl)

2017 — 4-9 (no bowl)

2018 — 7-6 (def. Western Michigan 49-18 in Famous Idaho Potato Bowl)

2019 — 7-6 (lost to Hawaii 38-34 in Hawaii Bowl)

2020 — 11-1 (def. Central Florida 49-23 in Boca Raton Bowl)

Overall record since 2010: 88-54 (6-4 in bowl games)

Tidwell says that if the 2010 class is perceived as a bust by BYU fans, it is because they haven’t looked close enough, and are perhaps swayed by the bad taste left over from Heaps’ transfer to Kansas (and then Miami). 

“Yeah, I really do think this class ended up better than people think,” Tidwell said. “That class produced quite a few guys who played professionally.”

You win some, you lose some

At BYU’s signing day news conference in 2010, Mendenhall, chuckling, said then-Washington coach Steve Sarkisian unsuccessfully “tried to steal a couple of our recruits.” Mendenhall could afford to do some rare boasting that day, having recovered nicely from the previous year when he failed to land top Latter-day Saint recruit Manti Te’o, a linebacker from Hawaii who chose Notre Dame and would eventually become more famous for being the victim of a catfishing scam than anything he did on the gridiron.

Along with all of the aforementioned, other highly recruited out-of-state players to sign with BYU in 2010 were Hawaii defensive tackle Graham Rowley; California running back A.J. Moore; eight-man football star Collin Keoshian; Arizona center Blair Tushaus; Massachusetts athlete Jordan Johnson; Texas linebacker Teu Kautai (Apo’s teammate in Arlington); Kansas defensive tackle Travis Tuiloma; and Georgia safety Kori Gaines and Alabama running back/return specialist Drew Phillips.

Three-star signees from within Utah included Alta High linebacker Toloa’i Ho Ching; Pleasant Grove linebacker Joey Owens and tight end Bryan Sampson; Bingham offensive guard Tuni Kanuch; Alta tackle Jordan Black; Granger lineman Manu Mulitalo; and Cottonwood defensive lineman Jordan Afo (who enrolled at Snow College to improve his academic standing and never made it to BYU).

The only two-star commits that year were Lone Peak safety Jacob Hannemann and linebacker Sae Tautu, who signed a couple free agent contracts with the New Orleans Saints upon exhausting his eligibility at BYU in 2016. Hannemann redshirted in 2012, played a year for BYU’s baseball team and was selected by the Chicago Cubs with the 75th pick in the 2013 MLB draft and played professional baseball until 2019.

Fua, now using the construction management degree he got at BYU as the owner of the 10X Builders residential construction company in Orem, said it took him awhile to “make a name for myself” because he backed up Van Noy and another NFL-bound defender, Ziggy Ansah.

BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy motions to the crowd during a game against Texas on Sept. 7, 2013, at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy motions to the crowd during game against Texas on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Van Noy became the most prominent NFL player from the class, while defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi (New York Jets practice squad) and Fua, who spent three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, also made the league. Running back Algernon Brown signed free agent deals with the Seahawks, Jets and Chiefs.

Quezada, who transferred to Fresno State after his playing time at BYU decreased significantly his sophomore season, and also because he wanted to be closer to his family in California after his brother died in an automobile accident, played professionally in Europe for four seasons before retiring in 2019 to start a career as a personal trainer and yoga instructor.

“I was not LDS, but I knew BYU had a great history, a great tradition,” Quezada said. “I was trying to decide between a bunch of schools, but knowing they were getting Jake Heaps and Ross Apo and a lot of other great players that year put it over the top for me.”

Quezada joined the church in August 2012, shortly after leaving BYU and just before he transferred to Fresno State.

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As for the news conference at Iggy’s that got everything rolling, “I was just jealous that I wasn’t part of the hype,” Fua said. “I mean, in high school, we were all for it. We didn’t see the big picture, or care at the time what kind of target it put on their backs, what kind of message it sent.”

Heaps has said he cleared the Iggy’s get-together with BYU coaches before he planned it, and Tidwell concurred, saying the “connections those guys were making were big,” and doors were opening that might not have been open before.

“Jake got out there and told the BYU story for us,” Tidwell said.

“I was not LDS, but I knew BYU had a great history, a great tradition. I was trying to decide between a bunch of schools, but knowing they were getting Jake Heaps and Ross Apo and a lot of other great players that year put it over the top for me.” — Josh Quezada

Program trends downward

Part of the perception problem for the class is that 2010, BYU’s last season in the Mountain West Conference, represented the start of a downward trend in the program’s fortunes, a trend only recently reversed. The Cougars went 11-2 in 2006, 11-2 in 2007, 10-3 in 2008 and 11-2 in 2009 before starting the 2010 season 2-5 and finishing 7-6 with a Heaps-led 52-24 win over UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.

They won 10 games last season for the first time since 2011.

Heaps finished the 2010 season strong, was named bowl MVP despite playing with cracked ribs, and seemingly had won the respect of his teammates. Three 2010 signees — Heaps, Van Noy and Quezada — earned starting roles and Apo, Stout and Rowley made the two-deep before Apo sustained a season-ending finger injury. 

Two prized recruits — Tayo Fabuluje and Keoshian — transferred out. Fabuluje, a non-Latter-day Saint lineman who was recruited to BYU by Apo, his prep teammate at The Oakridge School in Arlington, left for TCU and was eventually taken by the Chicago Bears in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL draft.

Little did anyone know, that was just the beginning of the transfer flood that would eventually catch Heaps, Quezada, Tushaus, Gaines, Phillips and others in its wake.

Can BYU sign another top-25 class now that Wilson, Milne and company have put it back on the national radar? Tidwell likes to keep it positive, but he acknowledges it is a “big mountain to climb” for a non-Power Five independent program with stringent academic standards and a strict honor code.

“I am a firm believer in (being in a) conference. I think we’ve got to get into a conference. I think that really helps,” Tidwell said. “But yeah, I think it can be replicated. I know there is a division now between Power Five and Group of Five. The kids now, if they are a decent player, they kind of get into their head that they have to go to a Power Five. So some of these kids may not have come to BYU if they had that distinction back then. Hard to say. You just got to keep working at it, keep up with the Joneses with all the technology and stuff that is going out today.”

BYU’s highest-ranked class since 2010 came in 2016, when the Cougars finished at No. 49 after inking defensive backs Troy Warner and Chris Wilcox, linebackers Max Tooley and Keenan Pili, offensive linemen Clark Barrington and Keanu Saleapaga, defensive lineman Handsome Tanielu, backup quarterback Jaren Hall and versatile receiver/kick returner Aleva Hifo.

BYU quarterbacks Riley Nelson, left, Jake Heaps, center, and quarterback coach Brandon Doman throw to receivers during a passing drill Aug. 11, 2010. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Heaps vs. Nelson? Or Nah?

Having played his first year of college football for his hometown team at Utah State, Logan’s Riley Nelson transferred to BYU after a church mission to Spain and played sparingly in 2009 while Max Hall was becoming the winningest QB in school history and Mendenhall could have been mayor of Provo.

Nelson says there was “a general level of amusement” among the Cougars already in the program as they watched the scene unfold at Iggy’s.

“It kind of fostered, or turned up, some competitive juices with some of the guys,” Nelson said.

Mendenhall’s plan in 2010 was to rotate Heaps and Nelson throughout the season until one emerged as the better quarterback, but the decision was made for the coach when Nelson sustained a season-ending shoulder injury at Florida State the third game.

BYU in’s team recruiting rankings since 2005

2005 — 61st

2006 — 65th

2007 — 43rd

2008 — 45th

2009 — 55th

2010 — 22nd 

2011 — 69th

2012 — 71st

2013 — 66th

2014 — 64th

2015 — 65th

2016 — 49th

2017 — 66th

2018 — 78th

2019 — 84th

2020 — 81st

2021 — 73rd (incomplete)

Still, Nelson says the QB battle didn’t divide the team, as some have suggested. He acknowledges that some guys in the locker room favored Heaps’ style as a pure pocket passer “with tons of arm talent,” while others favored him as a more mobile, athletic QB “who could make something out of nothing.”

“There was no Team Jake, no Team Riley,” Nelson said. “A lot of that petty stuff was really exaggerated.”

That includes a locker room incident on Heaps’ first day, Nelson said.

Heaps arrived early, chose a locker close to the showers and weight room, and left his stuff in it not knowing that there was a pecking order for lockers based on seniority. When it was Nelson’s turn to pick a locker off a map just inside the locker room, he chose the one Heaps had chosen, “not knowing that Jake had already picked it,” he said.

Nelson says he bundled Heaps’ belongings and moved them to a different locker, but “just to fuel the flames of Cougarboard,” word erroneously got out that he had thrown all of Heaps’ stuff into a garbage bag and told the freshman to pick a locker on the other end of the facility.

“Completely false narrative,” Nelson said. “Jake and I got along just fine.”

Because of the way he finished the 2010 season, Heaps started 2011 as the clear-cut starter, and Brandon Doman replaced Robert Anae as offensive coordinator. Heaps and the Cougars won at Ole Miss in their first game as an independent, then suffered a one-point loss at Texas before falling 54-10 to rival Utah at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Two games later, Heaps was yanked at home against Utah State with the Cougars trailing 24-13, and Nelson came off the bench to deliver two fourth-quarter touchdowns and a 27-24 win. It was suddenly Nelson’s team, the schedule eased up considerably, and the Cougars finished 2011 with a 10-3 record and Nelson-led bowl win over Tulsa.

Two days after BYU beat Hawaii 41-20 in the regular-season finale, Heaps announced he was transferring. The damage had been done, not only to his chances of beating out Nelson the following year, but to the 2010 signing class’ reputation as one of the better classes in program history.

“I think the reason why it gets the perception that it didn’t live up to hype is simply because Jake didn’t work out,” Nelson said. “Quarterback is the most high-profile position in the game of football, and the most high profile at BYU and there hadn’t been any high-profile recruit at that position since Ben Olson. It is unfair because the success or lack of success of the high-profile QB determines (perception). A lot of those guys were multi-year starters. I bet if you tally up the number of snaps, of meaningful contributions they made, I would say that class lived up to its billing, or exceeded it.”

Apo wishes he could agree with Nelson, but he can’t.

“I don’t think any of us lived up to the hype we were brought in with, except Kyle Van Noy and probably Alani (Fua) and Bronson (Kaufusi),” he said. “I guess we will always wonder what might have been if guys hadn’t quit or transferred.”

Or if Jake Heaps didn’t talk one out of going to Texas.