There were BYU football fans who saw this coming. What fans loved most about senior quarterback Riley Nelson — his fight and will to win — may have resulted in an injury which has forced the coaching staff to make some tough decisions about who will play quarterback.
Nelson was hit in the back late in the first half against Weber State earlier this season. The hit resulted in an injury coaches and Nelson insisted was not serious and did not limit Nelson’s play.
After the game against Utah, however, word spread about the condition of Nelson’s back, and fans began to question if Nelson’s play was limited because of injury.
At practice on Monday after the Utah game, reporters questioned Nelson about information pointing towards the possibility of cracks in his vertebrae.
“Is that what our injury report said?” Nelson said. “I don’t know what they put out.”
After the game at Boise State, Nelson admitted that he had not been 100 percent healthy.
“I learned you have to be honest,” he said. “When it hurts, you have to tell (the coaches) it hurts, and when it’s fine you tell them you’re fine.”
Nelson’s exciting, gritty style of play is what won him the starting position midway through last season over highly-touted Jake Heaps, but how long can a six-f00t, 196-lb quarterback take repeated beatings with the way he plays?
What if Nelson were to be hurt worse during a game? Would he be able to take himself out of the game?
“No, I wouldn’t,” Nelson said, with a touch of laughter in his voice. “I can’t do it. I couldn’t do it…. If I can stand and if I can move my left arm, I’m going to try and be out there.”
The official injury report for BYU’s Sept. 28 game against Hawai’i lists Nelson with only a sore back, but the Cougars have yet to declare who the starting quarterback is for the game.
Awaiting their opportunity behind Nelson at quarterback are senior James Lark and true freshman Taysom Hill.
After Nelson was hurt against Weber State, Lark led the offense for most of the second half. Hill saw playing time as well, mostly due to his ability to run the wildcat package of plays.
Lark showed he was comfortable with the offense, finishing with an efficient 7-10 passing for 45 yards and one touchdown through the air and another on the ground.
“Lot of fun,” Lark said about the game. “It’s what you work for, to get in the game when it actually counts. It was a great experience.”
Lark continued taking repetitions with the first-team-offense at practice and was told he would most likely play against Utah but did not get onto the field during the game, as Nelson played through back pain.
During the next game, though, at Boise State when Nelson proved ineffective, it was Hill, and not Lark, who was called on to relieve Nelson.
Hill had a rocky start to the game, skipping passes off the turf and finished an uninspiring 4-10 through the air for 42 yards, but he made up for it as he carried the ball 12 times for 72 yards and engineered a 95-yard scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
Why suddenly play the freshman quarterback over the senior in a hostile environment on the road?
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said the reason was that Hill’s offensive style was similar to Nelson’s; therefore, Hill was a better fit to the offense than Lark.
Fans generally are optimistic about Hill’s future, and members of the media generally agree.
Jared Lloyd, a reporter for the Daily Herald, tweeted during the third quarter of the Boise State game, “Cougar fans, rejoice… it looks like Taysom Hill is coming into the game.”
Hill was officially made the second-string quarterback, and with Nelson still experiencing problems with his back, there is a possibility that a true freshman could be starting quarterback for the Cougars on Friday, Sept. 28.
“I’m doing my best to prepare as if I’m going to be the guy,” Hill said. “I’ll do my best to be ready if called upon Friday.”
Mendenhall would not state who would start at quarterback Friday, but he did leave a hint.
“(Hill’s) been getting the majority of the reps,” Mendenhall said. “He has been studying diligently after practice and doing everything he can to be ready to play.”
With that being the current state of the BYU quarterbacks, who do Cougar fans want to see behind center?
Nelson is a dual run/pass threat, a proven winner, but the stagnant offense of the past two games may be a sign of how badly Nelson’s back is limiting his play.
Lark is a pocket-passer, a senior who knows the entire offense well but has seen limited game action.
Hill is also a dual run/pass threat, an inexperienced true freshman with great upside and potential.
Nelson’s aggressive play led some fans to believe it would be difficult for him to stay healthy for a whole season, and in the fifth game of the season, which quarterback to trust is the big question in Provo. It is evident all three quarterbacks want the opportunity.
“The coaches have to make the tough decisions, and sometimes the players are just subject to that,” Nelson said about the quarterback situation.
Kickoff against Hawai’i is Friday at 6 p.m., and the announcement of the starting quarterback is expected to be a game-time decision.