In case you've been under a rock for the past few months, you know that there is a raging quarterback battle going on in Provo involving three candidates in Riley Nelson, James Lark and Jake Heaps. While a clear frontrunner has yet to emerge after just one week of practices, there are some indications of how this race may pan out.
While it was said that coaches would defer to Nelson and give him a the majority of first-team reps, what is worth noting is how equal the reps have been. Each of the three have seen equal rotation opportunities, which gives strong indication to how wide open coaches regarded the race at the outset of this spring practice session.
What I've been told by coaches in the past is that they will largely determine who gets the starting nod based on which quarterback moves the offense consistently into the end zone on most occasions during practice sessions. One week in, the quarterback putting up the most points has been true freshman Jake Heaps, and should practices progress along the same lines as they did during the first week, then it's very likely that Heaps will be the starting quarterback this coming season.
What's worth noting here is that every practice save one has been held with little to no contact, which is to the detriment of someone with the abilities of Riley Nelson. It's no secret that his abilities are strong in running the football, and when coaches blow the whistle when any defender sniffs him on a pass rush, then that play is summarily dead.
It's doubtful that coaches will allow Nelson or any of the other quarterbacks to be tackled during practices, which makes it hard to gauge how well Nelson in particular is able to move the ball during practices. I'll be asking quarterback coach Brandon Doman more about that this coming week .
I've been a little surprised at how much work coaches have given Harvey Unga so far during practices. While it was assumed that he'd see little-to-no work as practices commenced, he's been receiving at least as many reps as any other running back on the roster, and this includes work during contact drills.
While J.J. Di Luigi remains steady as the first option behind Unga, the story among the running backs has been the impact of both Joshua Quezada and Malosi Te'o. Quezada made his impact felt immediately with a long touchdown run during his very first day of practices. Since then he's done nothing to dispel the notion that he can make a strong impact during his first season.
Te'o, meanwhile, has seen a lot of work and has shown increased strength to go along well with his already good burst and speed. He'll have to continue to show better in catching the football out of the backfield should he hope to crack the running back rotation, but all indications are that he and Quezada will be making strong bids for the second and third running back options.
There isn't much news here, as the team returns its wide receiver rotation virtually intact. What is worth noting has been the increased presence of the slot receiver, where McKay Jacobson has seen the majority of work.
Newcomer Marcus Mathews has yet to emerge, although he should be getting more work during 11-on-11 drills as he becomes more acclimated to the offense. A lot of intrigue surrounds Cody Hoffman, and he has been able to make some plays early on during practices, which could vault him into a spot on the two-deep roster should he continue making those plays.
No tight end has emerged yet, although true freshman Devin Mahina has certainly made an impact early on. He's shown a huge frame that moves extraordinarily well, giving quarterbacks a huge target that is open on most occasions. It's become obvious after just one week of practices that he'll be making a big bid for the starting tight end position.
Mike Muehlmann has been very consistent and has seen most of the work with the first-team offense so far. Richard Wilson has been limited during 11-on-11 work during the last two days of last week's practice session, but should return to a full practice participation this week.
While the three listed above are the players that most consider to be the only viable candidates for the position, Mathew Edwards would disagree with that. Edwards has shown very well so far in and is emerging as a real dark horse candidate at the position.
Much like the wide receivers, there isn't much intrigue regarding young players looking to make a spot for themselves on the offensive line, as they return four of five starters. The intrigue here is who will be manning the center position.
Early on it was Terence Brown seeing the reps at center, but other than the first day of practices, it's been Braden Hansen who has seen almost all of the reps at center with the first-team offensive unit. Should Hansen continue playing center this week, it will strongly indicate that this is where coaches are leaning towards.
Nick Alletto has assumed Hansen's spot at left guard, while Braden Brown has seen almost every rep at right tackle with the first-team offense. Ryan Freeman also has been worked in a lot with the first-team, seeing most of his work at both guard positions.
Newcomers Famika Anae and Brad Wilcox have seen time at tackle, with Anae manning the right tackle spot and Wilcox on the other side. Both players are somewhat raw, but both look to have a lot of upside.
The story here has been Vic So'oto, who has really come on strong in manning the defensive end position vacated by Jan Jorgensen. Talent has never been the question with So'oto, and now that he's found his position, he's starting to make that talent relevant and has been making some impressive plays during practice sessions.
Jadon Wagner is similar to So'oto in that he's a very talented option who has struggled to find his spot on the team. This spring, he appears to have found that spot and is providing some solid play while backing up So'oto at the end position. Thomas Bryson has also showed well on the other side and looks to entrench himself as the primary backup option behind Matt Putnam.
Uona Kaveinga has seen all the reps at inside linebacker with the first-team defense, and it's a real shame that he can't play this coming season due to transfer stipulations, as he looks to be the best option on the team currently at that position. Aveni Leung-Wai is the other player seeing reps with the first-team defense at inside linebacker, and he'll be looked at to secure one of the starting spots, though he'll compete with a bunch of new faces this coming fall.
On the outside Kyle Van Noy has seen a lot of work with the first-team defense due to Jordan Atkinson being held out of contact work and Grant Nelson choosing to pursue an internship rather than play out his senior season. Van Noy has responded well, providing good play at the weak side position. He'll have a great opportunity this spring to grab the starting spot as a true freshman, but a lot of that will have to correspond with what coaches choose to do with Atkinson, who has already proven capable of manning the weak side spot. But with the absence of capable bodies at inside linebacker, it would seem likely that they move Atkinson back inside to help out there.
The cornerback position looks as strong as it ever has, as demonstrated by a very capable player in Lee Aguirre seeing work with the third-team defense at boundary corner. Corby Eason has seen the majority of reps at boundary with the second-team defense, which has been somewhat of a surprise, although it's reasonable to assume that Aguirre will be back with the second-team defense this week.
Robbie Buckner has really stood out, making a bunch of plays from his field corner spot with the second-team defense. He looks active and aggressive in playing the position and will provide great insurance in 2010 at the very least.
Steven Thomas and Landon Jaussi have been rotating in at the free safety spot, while Travis Uale and Jray Galea'i have been rotating in at the strong safety spot. Both Uale and Galea'i have had their moments and have made some plays, and it will be worth noting in the coming weeks if either of them are tried out at the free safety spot, where coaches have little idea who will end up being the starter.
Position changes are likely, as one of the cornerbacks could be tried out at free safety. Once coaches sit down and further evaluate film, at least one of the cornerbacks could be tried out there before the end of the spring practice session.