Nelson's persistence with BYU Cougars pays off

Forgive Riley Nelson for smiling. He can't help himself.

The junior quarterback is suddenly the new face of Brigham Young football.

This week's news that highly touted sophomore Jake Heaps will transfer leaves Nelson alone to lead the Cougars against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl -- and throughout next season.

Heaps' departure, based on losing his starting position to Nelson, ends any debate as to who will be starting at BYU.

"It is what it is," Nelson said. "I remember when they did give me the opportunity to start it was on a week-to-week basis. That's now changed a little bit, but it's still my approach."

Nelson's story is one of grit and gutsy play on the field and patience off it.

The Parade All-America quarterback at Logan (Utah) High School set nine state prep passing records and amassed a staggering 130 career touchdowns.

He signed to play at hometown Utah State where his father, Keith, played football and where his grandfather, Rod Tueller, served as basketball coach (1980 to 1988) and athletic director (1985 to 1992).

As a freshman in 2006, Nelson worked his way into the starting lineup before leaving on a Mormon mission to Barcelona, Spain. It was there that he re-evaluated his college plans and transferred to BYU.

Nelson saw limited action behind Max Hall in 2009, but last season he earned the starting job ahead of Heaps, a true freshman and the nation's top-rated high school quarterback.

BYU struggled to a 1-2 start and Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at Florida State. Heaps moved into the starting spot and flourished with six wins in the Cougars' final seven games, including a Most Valuable Player performance at the New Mexico Bowl.

For Nelson, the writing appeared to be on the wall: This was Jake Heaps' team, and he had only a front-row seat to watch it while his eligibility slipped away.

Instead of mulling over another transfer, Nelson decided to stay at BYU and make the best of it.

"I felt strongly that it was the right decision for me and that, moving forward, no matter what adversity I was going to face I was going to stick with it," Nelson said.

The self-motivated player quietly went about his business preparing for the unknown, even convincing the coaching staff to let him compete on special teams during fall camp while also preparing and hoping to play quarterback.

"All that stuff has no bearing on your day-to-day approach to weightlifting, conditioning and practicing," he said. "Those are the things I could control. I could control how much film study I did, how many sprints I ran, how many weights I lifted, how many balls I threw in the summer. I tried to put myself in the best position to where if I did get another opportunity to start I would take full advantage of it."

Nelson's opportunity came during the fifth game of this season -- coincidentally against Utah State.

The Cougars were 2-2 and trailing 24-13 in the fourth quarter at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The frustrated crowd called for a change at quarterback.

Nelson engineered two touchdown drives, including a nine-play, 96-yard march with 2:36 left that ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Matthews with 11 seconds remaining to give the Cougars a 27-24 victory.

In a rare occurrence, fans stormed the field to celebrate their renewed optimism.

The starting job was back in Nelson's hands, and he ignited an offense that had produced just five touchdowns through the first four games. BYU scored 36 TDs in the next eight.

Nelson led the Cougars to wins over San Jose State, Oregon State and Idaho State, all in convincing fashion.

But after a 10-point loss to Texas Christian, adversity struck Nelson again. This time it came in the form of torn rib cartilage and a collapsed lung that he suffered while taking a hit against Idaho.

Cougars coach Bronco Mendenhall feared Nelson's season was over, and Heaps was called on to finish the 42-7 victory over the Vandals and start in what would be a 42-7 win over New Mexico State.

True to form, Nelson bounced back, healing fast enough to get medical clearance to start in last week's regular-season finale at Hawaii.

"Riley is the toughest player I have ever known," Mendenhall said.

Nelson threw for a career-high 363 yards and three touchdowns in BYU's 41-20 victory. He will try to cap his roller-coaster season when the Cougars (9-3) play Tulsa (8-4) in the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas on Dec. 30.

"If I have learned one life lesson from my football career, it is that you have goals in life and most of the time those are eventually accomplished," Nelson said. "But rarely, if ever, do they come to fruition in the way that you think they would."

So forgive Riley if he can't stop smiling. He is not relishing in the departure of Heaps, but he is satisfied to see his persistence finally paying off.

Dave McCann is a morning news anchor on KLAS-TV (Channel 8). He hosts "True Blue" at 5 p.m. Monday on BYUtv, is the play-by-play voice for BYUtv and hosts "Cougar Countdown" at noon Wednesday on KSHP-AM (1400) and Sirius XM 143 BYUradio. He can be reached at


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