Gritty QB Nelson eager to lead independent BYU
The one-time quarterback of the future is now in Kansas, replaced by a free-spirited Utah native living the Life of Riley on a Brigham Young campus known for its stone-cold-sober image and pressed khakis.
While Riley Nelson may be a breath of fresh air at BYU, he is intent on playing to the standards of previous senior quarterbacks for the Cougars.
The last three were a combined 33-6 in their final seasons, and nothing less is expected of the 6-foot, 203-pound Riley, who added 11 pounds of muscle to withstand an independent schedule built around six key games - Pac-12 foes Washington State, Utah and Oregon State, plus No. 24 Boise State, Georgia Tech, and for the first time since 2005, Notre Dame.
''He's our leader and he knows it,'' said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, 12-2 as BYU's senior QB in 2001. ''A leader has truth in his purpose and willpower in his character. It's seen by his teammates. We haven't had that the last two years from our quarterback.''
Doman didn't mention him by name, but clearly he was talking about Jake Heaps, who transferred to Kansas following last season after he was benched in favor of Riley in Game 5.
Nelson went 6-1 down the stretch, relying on his feet as much as his arm in rushing for 392 yards, and passing for 1,717 yards and 19 TDs.
Overall, the Cougars, in their second year of independence after leaving the Mountain West Conference, return seven starters on offense and seven on defense. The 2011 squad went 10-3, including a 24-21 victory over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.
The expectations are higher this year, which should start off with a bang against Washington State and new coach Mike Leach, a BYU alum coaching his first game since being fired at Texas Tech in 2009 amid allegations he mistreated a player with a concussion.
BYU's revamped secondary, which features a new starting safety and corner, will get an early test against a pass-happy spread attack known as ''Air Raid.''
Safety Daniel Sorensen and cornerback Preston Hadley return, but BYU is hopeful sophomore Jordan Johnson can step up at the other corner spot and Joe Sampson does the same at free safety.
BYU returns three of four starters at linebacker - Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga - and seniors Eathyn Manumaleuna and Romney Fuga anchor the defensive line.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall calls this one of his deepest teams.
Outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga goes a step further.
''We have more playmakers on the field than we've had in the seven, eight years Coach Mendenhall has been here,'' Poppinga said.
The key is getting five or six along the D-line who can stop the run.
Last year, BYU's D was one of the stingiest in the nation, ranked No. 13 overall in total yards allowed.
Offensively, after Nelson took over, the Cougars went from ranking No. 78 in third-down conversions to No. 5 nationally in that category.
While Nelson is trying to be smarter about when he runs and looks to check down more, his gritty style won't change.
''If it's third and 8 and it's there, I'm going to go get it and go get it no matter what,'' Nelson said.
He should have plenty of offensive weapons back in wide receivers Cody Hoffman (61 catches, 943 yards, 10 TDs), Ross Apo (34 catches, 453 yards, 9 TDs), and JD Falslev (31 catches, 330 yards, 2 TDs), plus 2011's second-leading rusher Michael Alisa (85 carries, 455 yards, 3 TDs).
After seeing the position decimated by injuries last year, tight end should again be a strength for BYU, with Marcus Mathews, Kaneakua Friel and Austin Holt turning heads in camp.
The big question is center, with the position still up for grabs between underclassmen Houston Reynolds and Blair Tushaus.
It all starts with lefty Nelson, who wears No. 13 and earned every offensive player's vote in being named captain this week.
''I shouldn't be surprised by anything,'' said Nelson, who has been in BYU's program since 2006, having served a church mission in Spain in that stretch. ''If I can just remain cool, calm and collected and permeate that attitude into our younger players and team collectively, then that's what's going to give our team the best chance to succeed.''