Provo • Watching from the press box on that cool, late September night a year ago, BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman saw a lifeless, rudderless offense with no confidence that seemed to just be going through the motions against a Utah State team it should have been inspired to beat, having been embarrassed by the Aggies the previous year in Logan.
“We needed a change,” Doman said. “We needed something different.”
So Doman asked BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall what he thought about pulling sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps, a pure pocket passer, in favor of fiery junior Riley Nelson, and Mendenhall agreed. What happened next produced one of the more notable chapters in in-state college football rivalry lore, as Nelson — the former Aggie — rallied the Cougars to a 27-24 win.
Little did Doman and Mendenhall know at the time, but that change would greatly alter the quarterbacking situation for years to come at a school that once prided itself on its assembly line of passing quarterbacks, including several who went on to NFL glory. The impatient Heaps transferred to Kansas at season’s end after the run-first Nelson started six of the next seven regular-season games, and Quarterback U. now runs the ball significantly more than it throws it in 2012. Through five games, the Cougars have attempted 213 rushes and just 159 passes, although it should be noted that more than a dozen of those rushes were going to be pass attempts before sacks and/or quarterback scrambles.
With Nelson and another running quarterback, freshman Taysom Hill, getting almost all of the snaps, the Cougars are averaging 4.6 yards per rushing attempt and just 6.4 yards per pass attempt. They’ve gained more yards rushing, 1,149, if negative yardage plays are subtracted, than passing, 1,021.
Despite Doman’s mild protestations to the contrary, BYU’s offensive identity has changed. And it can all be traced back to that monumental decision on Sept. 30, 2011, and the subsequent choice Mendenhall made the following week to make Nelson the starter against San Jose State.
The schedule weakened considerably, teammates simply played harder with Nelson holding the reins, Nelson beat the Pac-12’s Oregon State on the road, and BYU’s offense veered from its roots the rest of 2011— except when Heaps subbed for the injured Nelson and threw 36 times for 238 yards against New Mexico State.
“Look, I am interested in coaching quarterbacks with grit, and guys that do things with maximum effort, that are tough, can handle injury, and can lead,” Doman said, recalling his reasons for Heaps-Nelson switch. “Whatever you are doing, players have got to have absolute trust and confidence in it. We have had varying levels of that here for several years.”
Doman allows that he has made “minor variations and adjustments” to suit the skills of the quarterback running the offense, but insists that these are the same BYU schemes “we have utilized forever and are embedded in what we do” in the pass game.
“We have incorporated some quarterback run game stuff that has helped us significantly, some option stuff, some quarterback draws, and things like that we put in for Riley, and Taysom can do them, too,” Doman said. “But other than that, we haven’t done a whole lot differently.”
The second-year offensive coordinator does acknowledge, however, that Nelson and Hill, who is still unproven as a passer, can’t effectively execute certain plays that former quarterbacks such as Max Hall and John Beck could execute well, due to bigger arms and more experience.
“The offense will always suit the quarterback,” Doman said. “So whichever quarterback is our best quarterback, we will suit it to that guy. And right now, it happens to be Riley or Taysom, and that is the direction we are moving. When we had Max, we did it the way Max could do it. And when we have quarterbacks like Max again, we will utilize their talents.”
In a January sitdown discussion with reporters, Mendenhall hinted at a move away from the pure pocket passer, saying BYU quarterbacks in the future will be able to run and throw equally well, which is what coaches believe Hill is capable of doing and recent signees such as Ammon Olsen and Idaho’s Tanner Mangum can do.
That’s assuming, of course, that they don’t head off for Kansas anymore.
Change of identity?
BYU’s offense through five games:
Rushing • 213 attempts, 1,149 yards gained (160 yards lost), 11 touchdowns
Passing • 159 attempts, 1,021 yards gained, nine touchdowns
Utah State at BYU
P Friday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN