Maybe Jake Heaps has truly arrived. The Skyline High grad this week finds himself squarely in the crosshairs of a quarterback controversy at Brigham Young.
It’s a surprising development, because once Heaps took over the starting job in his fourth game as a true freshman in 2010 for the Cougars, the widespread assumption was that he’d have the job for as long as he stayed there.
Not quite. The Cougars have struggled offensively this year, and when Riley Nelson came on in relief of Heaps and helped rescue a cliffhanging 27-24 victory over Utah State Friday night, the debate was on.
At his Monday-morning press conference, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall didn’t shed any light on his plans for this week’s game against San Jose State, saying he’d probably wait until at least Thursday to name a starter at quarterback.
Right or wrong, there’s considerable sentiment Nelson has brought a zip to the Cougars that they didn’t have with Heaps. Nelson actually is a member of some of the BYU special teams, one of them the punt-cover unit, perhaps lending to the people’s-choice perception.
For instance, one media member asked Mendenhall Monday, “Are you worried that it seemed like the players played harder with Riley and at the end of the game, and not in the 2 1/2 quarters before?”
Responded Mendenhall, “I don’t think they played harder, nor did I see it on film.”
Saturday, the Salt Lake Tribune wrote, “Judging from postgame remarks by linebacker Brandon Ogletree and receivers Marcus Mathews and McKay Jacobson, the players probably prefer Nelson.”
The issue has Salt Lake City columnists choosing sides. Kurt Kragthorpe of the Tribune wrote Monday that Nelson, for the energy he brings to the Cougars, deserves to be the guy. His Trib colleague, Gordon Monson, weighed in for Heaps on the basis of his talent and upside.
But Monson delivered a scathing assessment of Heaps’ comportment so far:
“For whatever reasons, Heaps right now is lost in a fog,” Monson wrote. ” . . . He’s played scared, he’s played soft, as though he doesn’t want to get hit . . . worst of all, his team quit following him . . . for weeks, players in the program have whispered complaints about the sophomore’s immaturity.
“Heaps essentially needs to get real, grow up, gut up and earn his teammates’ respect.”
The back story is that Heaps was rated by some the nation’s top quarterback coming out of Skyline. He picked BYU over Washington, and then helped the Cougars to victory over the UW in a platoon with Nelson in his first college game.
They continued to share the job through three games — something Mendenhall later said was a mistake — before Nelson injured his non-throwing shoulder and Heaps took over the job for good.
That was going to be the end of the competition. At least, that was what everybody thought, after Heaps threw for a BYU-bowl-record 73-percent completions against UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, tying a school record with four touchdown passes. For the season, he completed 57 percent, had 15 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, and a lukewarm pass-efficiency rating of 116.
But Heaps’ performance this year has been less than inspired, as BYU, now 3-2 has scored only 18 points a game. He’s thrown for three touchdowns with five interceptions, with 54-percent completions and a poor 97.7 efficiency rating.
Friday night, Mendenhall removed Heaps in favor of Nelson with about five minutes left in the third quarter and BYU trailing 24-13.
Nelson, a junior who is more of a two-way, running-passing threat, rallied the Cougars with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the latter one on a tipped pass with 11 seconds left, capping a 96-yard touchdown drive. As if there weren’t already enough buzz, Nelson is a transfer from Utah State.
“Even I had the opinion he isn’t a prototypical BYU quarterback,” Mendenhall said of his early view of Nelson. “I think he uses that as a motivator to have a very strong self-concept. He’s just a football player and doesn’t consider himself only a quarterback.”
But, in a surprise, Nelson might just be that quarterback soon.