To absolutely no one's surprise, the hot topic during BYU's media availability after practice Monday night was the quarterback situation. Who will start on Friday against Hawaii? And how is the health of senior starter Riley Nelson?
After listening to coach Bronco Mendenhall, Nelson, backup Taysom Hill and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, I went away with the distinct impression that Hill will start on Friday, but that coaches and players will act and talk this week as if Nelson is going to start.
There was no concrete statement or declaration of the sort; that's just the feeling I got.
What is clear is that Nelson is hurt, although neither he nor Mendenhall will say exactly what is causing his back pain. Yes, I've heard the rumors and seen the tweets about several cracked vertebrae. Some people say it is five; others say it is three. And two people close to the program and/or close to Nelson have confirmed to me that, indeed, there's a significant, painful ailment that can only be fixed with rest -- several weeks of rest.
Aside from Mendenhall's statement that Nelson has a "sore back" and Brandon Doman's postgame comment that Nelson is "hurt bad," BYU has not officially disclosed the injury.
For the second-straight Monday, when I asked Nelson if he could be a little more specific about his back injury, he referred me to the trainer, Jeff Hurst.
But let's just say that Hurst hasn't exactly been hanging around after practice to give injury updates. At least not the past few weeks.
I asked Nelson if his struggles against Boise State can be attributed to his back condition.
"It is interesting, playing with a little bit of an injury. Yeah, it effects you physically, but also mentally. For example, there were a few throws that psychologically I didn't have as much confidence in, because, you know, I could feel the injury. So yeah, I mean, I would be lying if I said there was no effect," he said.
"So it did a little bit. However, that is no excuse. If the coaches are going to put trust in me to put me on the field, I need to be able to perform at the highest level, so I wasn't able to do that, and Taysom came in and did a good job -- put us in the opportunity to win the ball game, going for two there at the end. So, yeah."
He was also asked to put a number, or percentage, on his health.
"Boy, not very high," he said. "But, you know, I really want to play, and really want to be out there and battle with my guys. Today, it was better than it was Thursday. Thursday, I would say 65 percent. Today, 75, 80."
Given that he's not close to 100 percent healthy, does Nelson believe he will be able to start Friday?
"I sure hope so. I am going to do all I can to work with our medical staff, and manage reps in practice and everything with coach Doman and coach Mendenhall to be able to do so. Because it is my senior year, and my opportunities are very few, and so I hope to take advantage of every one," he said.
Nelson was asked about the way he stayed engaged in the game last week after he was pulled out, and how he supported Taysom Hill. He said it would have been selfish of him to sulk and pout and "think inwardly."
But isn't it also selfish to insist on playing if he is not physically capable of performing his duties in the game's most demanding position?
"I fully trust coach Mendenhall and coach Doman to do that. I understand. I watch the film, and I know that I am not playing my best," he said. "I mean, compare my film from how I played against Washington State to how I played against Boise State. And it doesn't look like the same player. I recognize that. However, if the coaches decide that I give us the best chance to win, then I want to be out there and I want to make good on that trust and confidence they show in me."
Nelson also acknowledged that the injury requires quite a bit of pain medication.
"I tried not to take it before the game," he said. "It is [awkward to take] for school, I can tell you that. It is really hard to concentrate, and it is really hard to read my textbooks, and manage medication and things like that.
During a game, you just manage it the best you can. But again, being honest, it does take up a lot of your energy and a lot of your focus is dedicated to just pain tolerance, when you are playing with an injury. So I know I am not the only player in America doing it, and I know in the NFL it is a lot worse. So I gained a lot of respect for a lot of football players who have battled through stuff."
In case you weren't up to watching video of Mendenhall's entire interview Monday night, here are a few comments as they related to the quarterback situation:
On whether Nelson is taking medication to get him through games:
"Yeah, he is tougher than any of us. So medical personnel work on him every day, all week, to get him to where he can play. And it is hard for him to make it through. But I believe in him and I would like him to be our quarterback. So if he is close to being able to go, we will play him. If he can't go, then he won't play. That's been similar the past couple of weeks."
On whether Riley fights through stuff too much, is his own worst enemy:
"Oh, I think it just puts more responsibility on myself and coach Doman, knowing that he will go until he can't hardly stand up. And so we just have to know that and then help him make that decision."
On whether Taysom Hill gets extra reps in practice:
"Yeah, sure. Both quarterbacks, both Taysom and James [Lark], will, as Riley is limited or can't go. Then obviously those reps go to them."
On Taysom Hill and what he brings to the team:
"Really, the reason that Taysom is kind of getting the majority of the snaps is it allows us to train.... Because he and Riley are similar in style. So it allows us to keep the game plan alive for Riley, and then if he can't, it is not that big of a jump to get to Taysom. And so, really, by style, that's how it is working."
On whether a healthy QB could have given them a better chance to win the last two games:
"I don't [think so], or I would have played someone else."
On whether players have confidence in Taysom Hill:
"Hard for that to happen so soon, because Riley is a proven leader and has played so many plays, and so many snaps and has won so many games. Probably wouldn't be realistic for [Hill] to earn that."
On whether he will have a quick trigger finger with Riley on Friday, because of what happened vs. Boise:
"I think I will have a lot better assessment of what the signs are. And he has a more open line of communication with me now. He kinda knows what the signs are. It is kind of a learning process."
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