PULLMAN – It might have been difficult two seasons ago to imagine that Riley Nelson would be where he is today, entering his senior year as Brigham Young’s unquestioned starter at quarterback.
It took a while for him to get there, both literally and figuratively.
Nelson, a native of Logan, Utah, spent his freshman season at Utah State. That was in 2006. He spent the next two years serving a Mormon mission in Barcelona, arriving at BYU for the 2009 season before entering 2010 thinking he’d have a chance to earn the starting job.
Which he did. But he had to share snaps with true freshman Jake Heaps, a touted prospect from Sammamish, Wash., who has since transferred.
And three games into that season, Nelson tore up his shoulder, took a medical redshirt and returned in 2011 as Heaps’ backup.
“I had to change who I was as a player to be able to handle a less ideal situation,” Nelson said via telephone from Provo on Tuesday. “Coming back from season-ending shoulder surgery and then being told I was a clear-cut backup, that was another instance where I learned a lot about myself and having to learn about personal adversity. The biggest thing was I had to sustain that light and that fire within myself knowing I didn’t have any guaranteed opportunity to play.”
He was eventually rewarded for his patience, replacing the struggling Heaps in week five last season to lead BYU to a 24-21 win over Utah State.
It was Nelson’s job from that point on, save for a blowout win over New Mexico State which Nelson sat out after breaking some ribs the week prior against Idaho.
So here he is now, well-traveled in more ways than one, eager to address the expectations that accompany senior quarterbacks at a school that has produced a mess of successful ones.
“It meant that much more to me having been through the ups and downs,” Nelson said of winning the job last season. “Then you have the added elements of it being my senior year and my opportunity to help this team accomplish the goals that we’ve set. A lot of things have gone into this year.”
If there’s any advantage for the Washington State Cougars heading into Thursday’s game, it’s that they know what they’re facing in Nelson, while the BYU quarterback admits he isn’t quite sure what to expect out of WSU’s defense.
The scouting report on Nelson typically contains at least one use of the word “competitor,” or “gutsy,” or “tough,” or any number of adjectives that are typically used to describe mobile, scrambling quarterbacks who don’t throw the ball particularly well.
“(The perception is) if you’re a good runner or you’re a mobile quarterback, that automatically means you’re somehow less of a passer,” Nelson said. “I hope to fight against that stigma.”
He threw for 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season, but completed just 57.4 percent of his passes and knows he needs to be more efficient.
WSU figures he’ll at least be more patient in the pocket.
“Last year it was probably one read and go,” WSU linebackers coach Jeff Choate said. “I would expect that we’re going to see a little bit more mature quarterback, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that when the game’s on the line, he wants the ball in his hand.”
“(He’s) one of those guys that I think responds well to when things are heated up a little bit,” coach Mike Leach said. “And I think he’s a pretty good leader.”
One forged by experience, good and bad.