BYU freshman quarterback Taysom Hill's knee injury and the fateful third-to-last play of the game that caused it dominated after-practice interviews Monday as the Cougars began preparations for Saturday's 1:30 p.m. MDT showdown with Oregon State, which will also be without a quarterback, Sean Mannion, who suffered a left knee injury as well that will sideline him an undetermined amount of time.
Perhaps lost in the uproar over the injury is the fact that senior starter Riley Nelson is poised to make his return, after sitting out the past two games with a sore back. There are strong indications that Nelson would have gotten the start vs. OSU regardless of Hill's condition, but now that's a moot point. Nelson will start, barring another setback.
Nelson spoke to reporters for more than 15 minutes after Monday's practice, and he revealed what the problem was for the first time: fractured vertebrae.
"I will keep playing as I have been playing. I didn't play hesitant. I took all the hits I needed to take, and ran when I needed to run when I was playing with fractures in my back," Nelson said when asked if he will change his playing style. "So now that they are healed, I don't expect to revert back and play anything differently."
Asked to talk more about the fractures and give a number, Nelson replied: "I don't know the anatomy of it. All I know is that I had some fractures in there."
Across the way, BYU head athletic trainer Jeff Hurst declined to give a more specific description of Nelson's back injury.
"I wouldn't let him play unless I felt very comfortable with him playing. I will say that much," Hurst said, when a reporter said fractures in one's back seem to be an injury that would keep someone from playing at all. "I don't know that I would put a percentage on [his current heath] ... He looked like his old self out there today."
Nelson also talked about what it was like to play in so much pain.
"My back feels good, so I will be able to move freely and there won't be constant pain, and intense pain when I get hit. I mean, it was at a point where I was feeling it at every step, and every throw and every cut and every move. Eventually that accumulated, and it occupied my mind so much to where it effected my decision-making and my play, and really my confidence level, and so that's all gone, because I don't feel pain anymore, and I don't feel hurt. I don't move hurt anymore, I am back to myself. Because I sat out completely, I have some conditioning to make up ground on, but other than that, I feel great."
Does he have any regrets that he insisted on playing against Utah and Boise State while injured?
"None at all ... No regrets. You can't look back," he said. "It is in the past, and there's no second-guessing, and hindsight is 20-20. So I know a lot of newspapers can be sold, and a lot of websites can be hit, you know, speculating and talking about all that stuff, but as far as I am concerned, I give it my all, and sometimes you don't come out on top. But I sleep good at nights knowing that I gave everything I have."
If anyone knows what Hill is going through, and what he faces in the next six months, it is Nelson. As a sophomore, Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Florida State in Game 3. Having not played in more than 30 percent of the games that year, Nelson applied for and was granted a medical hardship from the NCAA and now counts that as his redshirt year.
"My heart goes out to him," Nelson said. "First and foremost, my prayers are with him, and a season-ending injury is tough. I have experienced those before, and they are frustrating, and they are hard to get over. Second of all, it is a big blow to our team. He's a playmaker and one of our best offensive weapons, and so to have him go down leaves a hole in our offense."
Nelson said he will do all he can to mentor Hill through the setback.
"I mean, as much as he's around [I will talk to him]. Surgery kind of knocks you out and so I wish him a speedy recovery, and hope that he can get back on the team, and doing what he loves to do, which is playing the game of football. And even though he will be sidelined for a while, he remains in it. I want to see him at practice every day, and have him around, because he's a great guy, he is an important player to this team, and a leader, so I wish him the best."
Obviously, Nelson was asked several times about his condition. Here are a few of his comments:
* "I feel good. I am excited to get back and play healthy and not have any limitations or any kind of pain or any kind of injury on my mind. So it is going to be fun to play with a clear mind again."
* "It has been hard [sitting out], but I needed it to get healthy and it was tough. I left that decision up to the coaches. Obviously, I played against Utah, I played against Boise State. I told them if they needed me I was available, but their decision was to rest me, and it definitely worked wonders as far as healing and healing me up."
* "I practiced all the way up until Wednesday [last week]," he said. "So yeah, I was that close [to playing vs. USU]. I was two days away. When coach Mendenhall made the decision, I said I am going to do everything I can to put on tape, everything I can do. They allowed me that, and the decision was to start Taysom. So it worked out for us. We came away with the W, and that's the ultimate stat."
* On how his back is feeling right now: "Better. Those two weeks, as much as I tried to push through it against Utah and Boise, and all those things, those two weeks of rest and not playing [helped]. I did nothing against Hawaii, and then limited reps preparing for Utah State. That really helped it. I feel ready to go.. ... Yeah, I feel really good. I am full go. I am excited. We got a top-10 opponent in our house, on homecoming, and it is a great opportunity, so really excited, had a lot of energy today at practice and guys worked hard, and we executed pretty well, too, for the first day of a game plan."
Nelson on what he learned from the ordeal:
"I learned that you gotta give your body time to heal. And also, as much as you want to play, and stuff like that, that sometimes the best thing is to step back and let your body heal. You know, football is a brutal game, and guys play through injuries all the time, and you don't want to be the one guy that bows out and says no, the coaches made that decision for me. I guess what I learned sometimes is that you have to listen to your body in order to let it heal, and then allow yourself to be the player you really are, and not play at a handicapped or maybe at a percentage of the kind of player that you are."
Nelson on whether he took last week completely off to heal:
"No, because if anything would have happened to Taysom in that game, I was going in, and so I had to prepare for Utah State as I would any other opponent. And so there was not extra preparation for Oregon State. But it is nice to play on a Saturday. You feel like a lot of pressure and air has been let out, and you can breathe and have full time to prepare for our opponent. It seems like we haven't had that forever. So that's nice."
Nelson on whether he throws the ball as well as he threw it before injury:
"Yes. That was the first thing to come back. Once kind of the pain was eliminated in my back, and the strength was back there, that was the first thing to come back was getting the power back in my core, and the arm strength. What has been the slowest coming back is my side-to-side agility and movement, and then acceleration and burst off the ball, which is obviously important in pocket movement and escapability and things like that. That's a big part of my game.
The throwing aspect is what came back first."
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