But the sophomore, so highly thought of since arriving in Provo, Utah, after three high school state titles in Washington, just hasn't been that good. His third-quarter demotion against Utah State on Sept. 30 meant the sudden realization that the Cougars could get production from someone else.
Junior Riley Nelson helped his team escape a 21-13 deficit with a 27-24 win against Utah State, capped by a drive that started at his own 4-yard line and ended with a short, deflected touchdown pass about 2 1/2 minutes later.
Heaps looked on the sidelines as if he was happy to see his team improve to 3-2. But he didn't appear overjoyed to have zero part with it. There was a debate about the position last season in the first few weeks, but since Nelson's season-ending shoulder injury, Heaps' development has afforded him starts in the past 15 games. Getting the next one is no sure thing against San Jose State on Oct. 8.
"That's a good question," head coach Bronco Mendenhall said when asked about the decision in his postgame news conference heading into the Oct. 8 home game with San Jose State. "And between myself and the offensive staff, we will certainly talk about that and then decide. We will consider what we think is best."
Mendenhall followed that up Oct. 3, at his weekly morning press conference, that he hasn't ruled out playing Nelson and Heaps against the Spartans. It appears a starter may not be announced until gameday, either.
Heaps is best geared for the passing offense. And Nelson's running talents don't seem to take full advantage of the talent available around him. But he also won some games at Utah State before serving a two-year Mormon mission, which is saying something because the Aggies were miserable in 2006.
Judging from postgame remarks by players such as linebacker Brandon Ogletree, the players probably prefer Nelson -- who has stayed busy this year as a wildcat option and a part of some special teams units. He is a gunner on punt-return defense.
"I mean, no disrespect to any of my teammates, because Jake works his tail off, too," said Ogletree, "but if any of us aren't performing, someone else comes in for us. And so that's football. I trust Jake to keep a level head. He will fight through this, and he is going to keep working hard, and Riley is going to keep working hard.
"But at the end of the day, whoever moves the ball, that is who is going to play quarterback, I think."
Mendenhall, full thrust into another quarterback debate, said "the players don't support one quarterback over the other, nor should they."
--Riley Nelson moved the ball against Utah State, throwing for 144 yards and running for 62 more in the final 20 minutes. Jakes Heaps was 11 of 25 for 107 yards in the first 40.
Nelson declined twice to answer questions about whether he thinks he earned the starting job in the postgame media room. But what his teammates said spoke volumes.
"I think really the second half is when we kind of changed as a team," said wide receiver McKay Jacobson. "We played with more heart. ... that really was the change. We just started putting things together and making drives, and you could tell that all of us were playing with a little bit more heart out there."
--So far this season, BYU (3-3) has staged second-half comebacks in all of its victories.
The Cougars rallied from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter in the season-opener at Ole Miss. Last week, BYU was down 17-10 in the third quarter before winning, 24-17.
On Sept. 30, the Cougars overcame a 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter against USU.
"I get asked about the games a lot and every time I say, 'It's a dogfight,'" Nelson said. "That's just who we are and the way our schedule is set up, every game is going to be decided by a touchdown or less. We're ready for it for the rest of the season and I hope Cougar fans are too, because this is how it's going to be. Obviously, in games like that that are close, emotions run high. The highs are really high and the lows are really low. So it's going to be a fun season."
--As for next week against San Jose State, new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said he doesn't see any reason not to continue with Nelson. Doman has been one of Heaps' greatest advocates the past two years, but the immediate need for the team may be a change. Doman recommended the change to seventh-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
"It isn't my decision," said Doman to BYUTv postgame, "but my recommendation would be to let Riley Nelson play and start against San Jose St."
SERIES HISTORY: BYU leads San Jose State, 9-5 (last meeting, 1998. 46-43 BYU)
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: BYU followers love to watch the quarterback. Will they be seeing one or two against San Jose State? Jake Heaps has been the go-to guy the past 15 games but his status to play is questionable because Riley Nelson did such a fine job against Utah State. He had four red-zone entries in the final 20 minutes, including two touchdowns. That's a major improvement over Heaps' propensity of late to merely set up short field goals.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The solid unit took two steps backward Oct. 1 vs. Utah State. First, the tackling continued to look shady. Second, BYU's defense has forced nine turnovers this year (it had just 23 in all of 2010) but couldn't force a mistake from the Aggies, who were starting a freshman quarterback. BYU's work-in-progress offense needs all the help it can get from its friends. San Jose State has lost nine fumbles, third-worst nationally, so expect BYU to go looking to loosen up ball carriers.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: BYU vs. San Jose State, Oct. 8 -- Quite likely, the starter at quarterback won't be known until either Jake Heaps or Riley Nelson jogs out onto the LaVell Edwards Stadium turf sometime around 8 p.m. Utah time -- just to keep the Spartans guessing about two vastly different options, if for no other reason.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Can BYU handle the self-imposed drama that could be coming with the chance of staging a quarterback battle six games into the season? The 3-2 Cougars, riding a two-game winning streak, must continue to develop on both sides of the ball. The season has fallen far short of potential and expectations to this point.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Riley Nelson-Jake Heaps -- It's not an ideal situation at this point of a season to be considering two quarterbacks, but it sure makes for great drama. The Cougars may use both experienced players and it remains to be seen how that fares on the field and in the locker room.
TE Marcus Mathews -- Caught BYU's first tight end touchdown pass since 2009 against Utah State. Is blossoming as a short-distance and third-down option at a spot the Cougars desperately needed to develop this season.
BYU's offensive line -- May have to handle blocking for two entirely different quarterbacks. This was a difficult thing to handle early last season when the Cougars tried it.
--A school official mentioned to quarterback Riley Nelson after his heroics that the player may be in need of a haircut. That's no laughing matter at BYU, where conservative hairdos are a must. The BYU honor code stipulates "hairstyles should be clean and neat ... and trimmed above the collar, leaving the ear uncovered." Nelson's 'do is in some campus gray area.
--With rumors and speculation swirling daily about the possibility of BYU joining the Big 12 Conference, coach Bronco Mendenhall said he has "no idea" about what's going on.
Mendenhall has insulated himself from all of the talk. He's not even talking to athletic director Tom Holmoe about it.
The coach said he's too busy preparing his team to play Utah State to worry about such things.
When asked about speculation that BYU could be headed to the Big 12, Mendenhall replied, "I have no idea. I'm asked that so much and I've literally blocked myself from any conversations from Tom. He hasn't mentioned a thing to me, nor has (BYU) President (Cecil O.) Samuelson. Nor do I think will they until maybe after the season or if it even comes to the point where I have a say. Man, way too much going on for me to weigh in on it right now."
--Starting linebacker Jordan Pendleton, hobbled by a sprained ankle since late in the Sept. 17 loss at Texas, is expected to be on the field again for SJSU.
Mendenhall mum on starting QB situation
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