Provo • Moments after he led BYU to a 24-21 come-from-behind win over Tulsa at the Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas last winter, the thought dawned on quarterback Riley Nelson.
“We can’t let a minute go to waste this offseason,” Nelson said. “We are going to have a lot of seniors back, and we want it to be a special season. We are going to have a sense of urgency all offseason.”
And history shows, Nelson clearly knows, that when BYU has a senior starter at quarterback, it almost always is a successful season. The last three seasons BYU had a senior QB — 2001, 2006 and 2009 — the Cougars went a combined 34-6, with two bowl wins.
Max Hall led BYU to an 11-2 season in 2009, capped with a 44-20 win over Oregon State in the Las Vegas Bowl. John Beck led the Cougars to an 11-2 season in 2006, topped with a 38-8 beatdown of Oregon in Vegas. Current offensive coordinator Brandon Doman led the Cougars to a 12-2 record in 2001.
Since LaVell Edwards became head coach in 1972, BYU has never had a senior quarterback who played the entire season lose more than four games; Gary Sheide went 7-4-1 in 1974 and Kevin Feterick went 8-4 in 1999. Other years, and the record: 1979 Marc Wilson (11-1); 1981 Jim McMahon (11-2); 1983 Steve Young (11-1); 1985 Robbie Bosco (11-3); 1991 Ty Detmer (8-3-2); and 1996 Steve Sarkisian (14-1).
Nelson’s senior moment begins Thursday when BYU plays host to Washington State.
“As I look back at those years with senior quarterbacks, they also had great teams,” Nelson said. “And that’s what I am most encouraged about. I feel like we have a nasty defense, for starters ... And to be honest with you, the quarterback does play a very vital role in the success of the team. So I don’t shy away from that, nor do I put undue pressure on myself because of that.”
While Hall was a starter since his sophomore season and Beck started in four games as a freshman before taking over full time as a sophomore, Nelson’s journey to senior starter more closely resembles what Doman went through. Doman was handed the reins late in his junior year after trying a different position: receiver; Nelson got the job midway through 2011 when Jake Heaps struggled, and only after beginning the season as a gunner on the punt coverage team.
Doman called Nelson’s situation “eerily similar” to his.
Nelson “is an ultraconfident guy, and he should be now,” Doman said. “He played a lot last year. He’s won several games now. He has come from behind to win some games. He has seen about everything in that regard. He’s just faster and stronger and smarter this year, so hopefully we will see more production.”
Nelson was 6-1 in games he started last season, completing 57.4 percent of his passes for 1,717 yards and 19 touchdowns with seven interceptions. His leadership ability, and the way the team rallied around him, was quickly apparent when he directed the improbable comeback win over Utah State.
But he also displayed a penchant for trying to do too much that proved costly against better opponents, such as TCU. Doman said getting Nelson to throw the ball away when nothing is there has been emphasized in the offseason.
“We have spent a lot of time on that, and he is starting to make good decisions in that regard,” Doman said. “There may be a couple of reckless throws [this season], but hopefully fewer than we have seen in the past. ... I am hoping that with a senior quarterback and a little bit more experience, and who he is, that we will see a decrease in turnovers.
“Riley is a little bit on the edge. And that’s OK. I am not going to take that away from him,” Doman continued. “So maybe we will see a handful more interceptions than we did with Max and John, but we might also see more explosive plays than we did with those guys.”
The only BYU senior quarterback who didn’t excel his senior year was Steve Lindsley, who was taken out in the third-to-last game in 1986 and did not start the last two games. BYU went 8-5 that year.
Does the season ride on Nelson’s shoulders?
“No, I don’t feel that way,” he said. “There are 22 offensive and defensive starters, with another 15-17 guys helping out on special teams. So I look at myself as one cog in the machine, and just another piece of the puzzle. I do have a high-profile position, and that’s kind of the nature of the game. I definitely embrace that. My role in the offense is to get the ball into the hands of our playmakers as quickly and efficiently as I can. ... If I can do that effectively, I will have met my goals statistically, and all that stuff.”
And history, quite likely, will repeat itself.
P Washington State at BYU, 8:15 p.m. TV • ESPN