Spring Practice Preview: Offensive Backfield

Spring practice begins a week from Monday and brings with it a lot of intrigue regarding the various position battles that will commence in earnest. Chief among these battles will be the one for the starting quarterback spot as coaches look to replace Max Hall. At running back the top spot is secure with the return of Harvey Unga, but others will be battling for the backup spots behind him.

It's been a while since BYU had a legitimate battle at the quarterback position, but coaches will have exactly that as three viable candidates look to show that they have what it takes to become the Cougar's primary signal-caller. Indeed, most of the intrigue this spring will surround the progress of each of the three top quarterback candidates which include junior Riley Nelson, recently-returned missionary and sophomore James Lark and true freshman Jake Heaps.

Riley Nelson 6-0, 207 Jr.

Nelson's advantage heading into the race is that he's fresh off having a full season within the football program. That includes having a lot of practice time, but perhaps even more importantly, game time that has prepped him to take the starting reigns at the most visible of all positions. He's also garnered a lot of respect from his teammates who have expressed a desire to go into battle with him leading the offense.

While Nelson has strong leadership qualities and a unique ability to make plays outside of the pocket with a strong inclination to run for as many yards as he passes for, there is some concern for his ability to make all of the throws with consistency within the BYU offense. He compares with former Cougar quarterback Brandon Doman in regards to what his strengths are at the position.

James Lark 6-2, 219 So.

Lark has recently returned from serving a mission in St. Petersburg, Russia. Prior to his mission he spent two full years within the football program learning how to best lead offensive coordinator Robert Anae's offensive system, which will certainly give him a leg up in his audition.

Lark came to BYU as a highly decorated recruit showing a good, live arm to go along well with his above-average athleticism at the position. His overall athletic makeup is somewhat similar to former Cougar quarterback Jacob Bower. Both Lark and Nelson hold the type of athleticism that would allow them to succeed at positions on the field of play other than quarterback.

Jake Heaps 6-2, 205 Fr.

Heaps was able to transfer midyear and will enter spring practices with almost a full two months working out with teammates before taking his first snap in an official practice. That is huge for any new player. Heaps comes in with a lot of publicity, having being named as the top quarterback prospect in the nation out of high school this past year. Whether he'll live up to all his tremendous hype remains to be seen.

It's hard to ascribe certain strengths to someone we've yet to see perform live in a practice situation, but if his high school film is any indication, Heaps should prove to be the best pocket passer of the three that will be competing for the spot. Athletically, he has a lot in common with John Beck in regards to arm strength and overall technique.

What to expect

Nelson will almost certainly get the bulk of the reps with the first-team offense initially, but how they divide those reps following the first few days of practices will be worth noting. Should coaches follow the model they ran while Max Hall was battling with Cade Cooper for the starting spot, then all three will be seeing equal work with the first-team offensive unit as they alternate on a day-to-day basis.

Coaches also like to go with the hot quarterback, and if one of the three is moving the offense more consistently than the others, then that quarterback will finish out a given practice with the majority of the reps. The equal rep model will almost certainly be utilized for the first two weeks of practices and may extend for the duration unless one of the three becomes the clear front-runner.

The interesting dynamic here is how different Nelson is from the other candidates, which will likely make it that much more difficult for coaches to determine a starting quarterback. Should Nelson prove to be the guy, then look for the offense to feature more roll-outs and option plays, while with Heaps and Lark, the offense will run somewhat similar to what it has over the past four seasons.

Running Back

As stated, the team returns a lot with the return of BYU's all-time leading rusher Harvey Unga. He probably won't be seeing all that much work during the spring, as the focus will be solidifying the backup options behind him. The pool of candidates looks to be relatively strong with many intriguing options that will battle for playing time as the second and third backs within Anae's offense.

J.J. Di Luigi 5-9, 198 Jr.

Di Luigi will be the bar other running backs will have to reach and surpass should they hope to earn playing time as the second option at the running back position. Last season saw him perform very admirably at the position and he'll only work to improve this season as he looks to separate himself from the other candidates.

Bryan Kariya 6-0, 214 Jr.

Kariya is as reliable as they come and provided some very good play early on in 2009 before somewhat tailing off due to some nagging injuries late in the season. He's not someone who will likely blow anyone away with his play, but his consistency is something that will be a great benefit to the Cougar offense as a whole during the 2010 season.

Mike Hague 5-10, 223 Jr.

Spring will be extremely important for Hague, because if he doesn't solidify himself as the third or fourth option within the backfield, he'll likely be passed up by a bunch of young, promising talent behind him. Last year Hague showed some mission rust, something he hopes to have shaken off as he vies for a regular spot in the running back rotation.

Peni Maka'afi 5-10, 238 Fr.

Maka'afi's advantage comes with the fact that he's the only true fullback on the team that will be competing for a spot this spring. He showed some promise last year and should do well in getting a leg up as Unga's primary lead blocker in the coming month.

Malosi Te'o 5-10, 203 Fr.

Te'o somewhat disappeared during fall camp last year after showing well in the spring. He'll be looking to rebound after spending 2009 on the scout team. He likely has the best speed and burst of any in the existing pool of running backs that will be competing for spots this spring practice session.

Joshua Quezada 5-11, 205 Fr.

Quezada was a big land for the coaching staff, as he comes to BYU as one of the better running back recruits they've signed in recent years. Having the opportunity to compete for a spot in spring is huge for any true freshman, and we'll be anxious to note what he can bring to the table during the coming weeks.

What to expect

Throw in walk-on options such as David Foote and Zed Mendenhall, and there certainly won't be a lack of options that will be competing at the running back position. With at least three other top options looking to join the team this upcoming fall in Algernon Brown, Drew Phillips and A.J. Moore, it will be imperative for all those competing in the spring to solidify spots for themselves.

Fans can expect there to be a very healthy competition for every slot behind Unga. Look for Di Luigi to get the bulk of the work this spring, as others will have to prove to be at least his equal in regards to production and trust level should they hope to earn playing time during the 2010 season.

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