When BYU QB Riley Nelson began his college football career, George W. Bush was still in the White House, Dennis Hastert was Speaker of the House and Barack Obama was still a senator from Illinois who had yet to announce his candidacy for the presidency. And it was two years before we started to hear the bad news about Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Those were the days when Nelson was a freshman QB at Utah State in the fall of 2006. Now it’s 2012, and having stretched NCAA eligibility requirements beyond recognition, Nelson continues playing college football, only now he is taking snaps in Provo for Brigham Young instead of in Logan, and having the benefit of a two-year LDS mission and a medical redshirt season to allow him one more year of life on the college level.
And BYU is sure glad that Nelson has one more stab this fall, as coach Bronco Mendenhall’s Cougars plot what could be a stealth mission that, if all goes to plan, could see BYU knocking on the door of the BCS.
A key could certainly be the playmaking Nelson, who wrested the starting job from then-soph Jake Heaps a year ago and proceeded to lead the Cougars on a hot run down the stretch and into the Armed Forces Bowl, where BYU beat Tulsa in a 24-21 white-knuckler.
The final verdict on the Cougs’ move to football independence remains elusive, as BYU enters its second season minus a conference affiliation this fall. The Cougs bolted the Mountain West following the 2010-11 school year, believing the independent route was their best path going forward for the football program (other sports have affiliated with the West Coast Conference).
Television rights were one consideration for the school, which retains its own network, available in millions of homes across the country. Specifics regarding TV rights with the Mountain West were another bone of contention between BYU and its former league.
Still, the independent way continues to be subject of debate in Provo. Sources report that BYU AD Tom Holmoe has been lamenting about the problems the independent Cougs are confronting as they look to fill their schedules in upcoming years. Which is one reason why BYU continues to be a popular subject in conference realignment gossip.
There were negotiations between the expansion-minded Big East and BYU late last year that were eventually tabled. The Provo school also remains a favorite subject regarding possible Big XII expansion, although those possibilities seem to have cooled. Stay tuned for further developments.
BYU’s path to the BCS is hardly a clear one even if the Cougs should run the table this fall. At the least, expect BYU to qualify for its eighth bowl (this year it would be San Diego’s Poinsettia) in as many seasons for the classy Mendenhall, who has brought stability and success to a program that had lost both in the immediate aftermath of longtime head coach Lavell Edwards’ retirement 12 years ago.
Nelson is an easy subject with which to begin Cougar discussions regarding 2012, but if BYU is indeed going to make a long shot run at the BCS, Mendenhall’s defense is likely to be key.
Mendenhall, who has done double duty as the team’s defensive coordinator since the middle of the 2010 season, retains a form of the unorthodox 3-3-5 defensive alignments that Bronco first learned at New Mexico when working under Rocky Long. BYU also shifts into more-basic 3-4 looks that will highlight a collection of rugged returning starters in Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga, all honors candidates and part of seven returning starters who form the core of the Cougar stop unit.
The 'D' could be even better than it was a year ago when it placed among the national leaders in total (ranked 13th at only 313 ypg) and scoring (ranked 20th at 20 ppg) defenses. Up front, the Cougs figure to be menacing, especially with nose tackle Romney Fuga (all 321 pounds of him) anchoring the middle, and another rugged Polynesian, Eathyn Manumaleuna, lining up beside him.
Mendenhall also believes 6-6, 270-lb. Ghanian Ezekiel Ansah, a physical specimen who originally attended BYU on a track scholarship but has the tools to dominate at either DE or LB. Standout senior CB Preston Hadley and junior SS Daniel Sorenson are also a couple of potential postseason honors candidates.
Yet it was Nelson’s emergence in the second half of the 2011 campaign that fueled the Cougs to wins in nine of their last 10 games and caused the aforementioned former blue-chip recruit Heaps to transfer to Kansas after last season. The exciting Nelson, a BYU version of Tim Tebow, is fearless and apt to take off and run from the pocket at the first opportunity, gaining 392 rush yards a year ago. But offensive coordinator Brandon Doman still believes Nelson can be an even more effective passer out of the Cougs’ West Coast offense after passing for 19 TDs and only seven picks last season.
If there is a concern at QB, it’s behind Nelson, where there is little experienced depth. Unless emergency circumstances arise, expect touted frosh QB Tanner Mangum to be redshirted in the fall before likely taking over from Nelson next season.
Nelson also has established and lanky receiving targets in 6-foot-4 wideout Cody Hoffman, who caught the winning TD pass from Nelson with just 11 seconds to play in the bowl thriller vs. Tulsa, and 6-foot-3 Ross Apo (who should be ready in the fall after sitting out spring drills after shoulder surgery), combined for over 1400 yards worth of catches and 19 TDs last fall.
Mendenhall also believes his infantry should improve in the fall despite the loss of RBs J.J. DeLuigi and Bryan Kariya to graduation. The new RB group is reportedly the fastest in memory at the school, and slashers Mike Alisa and Josh Quezada have hinted at breakouts in the past. Watch speedy frosh RB Jamaal Williams, who starred as a prep in California (Fontana). The special teams also look encouraging, with both kickers (PK Justin Sorenson & P Riley Stephenson) back in the mix.
The Cougs, as mentioned earlier, already have a postseason destination secured in the San Diego Poinsettia Bowl, where, ironically, BYU would be facing a Mountain West rep. But the schedule is built for a BCS run, as the Cougs figure to have real chances in their toughest road games at Utah, rebuilding Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Win those, and the Cougs could get into the BCS discussion.
Spread-wise, note that BYU roared down the stretch last season behind Nelson, covering its last seven games on the board. Mendenhall also enters 2012 having covered 14 of his last 18 on the board since late in the 2010 season.
Summary: Riley Nelson has proven himself a worthy successor to the great BYU quarterback pedigree, an exciting playmaker with an ability to raise the level of play from his teammates, as demonstrated down the stretch last season. As long as Nelson stays healthy, the pieces are indeed in place on both sides of the ball for BYU to easily qualify for its eighth bowl in as many seasons for Mendenhall...and maybe even emerge as a dark horse BCS candidate. Fun times in Provo!
Follow Bruce Marshall's college football previews throughout the summer here at Don Best Sports: Boise State ... Brigham Young ... Florida State ... Stanford ... Washington State