Senior quarterback Riley Nelson is a lot like a Utah weather forecast. You can guess as to what you might expect, but when the day comes, you are never quite sure what you will see.
Is he the hard-nosed, versatile leader in the huddle who runs over linebackers, high-fives referees and thrills fans with his dynamic, impulsive style of play?
What about the untamed, unproven, unpredictable “plan B” quarterback who gives his coaches and fans heart attacks every time he wildly scrambles around the pocket or hurls up a desperation pass?
In spite of doubts, there is one person who is certain of what to expect from Riley Nelson this year — Nelson himself.
“I will do everything I can to be as big, strong and fast as I can be and I will continue to play the way I play,” Nelson said.
Nelson scoffs at criticism aimed at his sometimes uncontrolled and chaotic play.
“There are people who think I am out there reckless, just running around,” Nelson said. “What they don’t realize is that every risk I take, every time I choose to scramble down the field, those are all calculated and thought-out decisions. I will continue to implement that part of my game.”
Regardless of the manner he went about it, Nelson’s on-field resume seems to speak for itself.
In just a little more than half a season, Nelson led the Cougars to a 6-1 record, including thrilling, last-second victories over rival Utah State and bowl-opponent Tulsa. Nelson’s stat-line was also impressive, completing 116 of 202 passes for 1,717 yards and 19 touchdowns. Nelson added 392 rushing yards on 88 carries, an average of 4.5 yards per carry.
Nelson’s noteworthy accomplishments have garnered him increased national attention. Earlier this month, Nelson was named to the preseason watch-list for the Maxwell Award, a prestigious recognition given to the player voted by sportswriters and coaches as being the best college football player in America. He was also named to the Davey O’Brien Quarterback Award watchlist, given to the nation’s top quarterback.
Additionally, Nelson was selected to Phil Steele’s Preseason All-Independent First Team, announced earlier this May.
In searching to find his identity and niche as the starting BYU quarterback, Nelson said he looks to his position’s predecessors for inspiration.
“John Beck and Max Hall are two past players that I really study and learn from the most,” Nelson said. “It’s nice because they are often around and I have their cell phone numbers so I can call them and ask them about any questions and concerns that I have. ”
You could say Riley Nelson is a lot like Rudy, that lovable sports-movie legend who played with all his heart to prove doubters wrong. Aside from the position difference, Nelson is cut from the same cloth as Rudy, compensating for deficiencies in natural ability with pure grit, determination and hard work.
Fortunately for Nelson, he has the full faith and support of his teammates and coaches. Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, said he believes his quarterback has what it takes to meet the lofty expectations that accompanies the position of quarterback at BYU.
“Riley has a whole lot on his plate. When you start adding up all the responsibilities that he has, along with the expectations that fans have for his performance, it’s pretty daunting,” Doman said. “He is 24 years old, a fifth-year senior. If there is ever a time to do it, now is the time.”
For head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Nelson’s unpredictable nature is partly what makes him such an invaluable asset to the Cougar offense.
“Coaching Riley is an adventure,” Mendenhall said. “Riley is very strong willed, he is very independent, he is very competitive. He is a risk taker and that’s what makes him good.”
While Mendenhall concedes it is important not to give Nelson too much freedom where he takes unnecessary risks, he reiterated his confidence in Nelson’s decision making.
“We are currently erring on the side of giving him more freedom than less, that seems to be how he plays best,” Mendenhall said.