Provo • Quarterback Jake Heaps could throw for 400 yards, set records for passing efficiency and perhaps even lead the Cougars in the school fight song, but Riley Nelson will still be regarded as BYU's starting quarterback when he returns from the lung and rib injuries suffered in Saturday's 42-7 win over Idaho, coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday.
Heaps will get the start this week against New Mexico State (Saturday, 8:15 p.m., ESPNU) and Nelson won't play, having been released from the hospital Monday after spending two nights there recovering from a 30 percent collapsed lung and two fractured ribs.
It is still uncertain whether Nelson, who left Saturday's game after throwing a 32-yard touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman during BYU's second possession, will even be allowed to board an airplane for the game at Hawaii on Dec. 3 because of how pressurization in airplanes affects lung injuries such as his, let alone play against the Warriors, Mendenhall said.
"He might be [healthy enough] to play, but not be able to make the trip," the coach said. "... So that will be a decision that will come later."
Doctors say that Nelson could be out for four weeks, but Mendenhall said that is a "conservative" estimate.
As for now, though, Heaps has "a great opportunity," Mendenhall said, noting that the sophomore played well against Idaho and showed poise and confidence and made excellent decisions in leading the Cougars to touchdown drives on five of his six possessions. Heaps started BYU's first five games, but was yanked in favor of Nelson in the third quarter against Utah State.
"Jake, much like Riley a year ago, had the more difficult part of the schedule to begin with, and now he has a chance to re-emerge, or re-surge, I guess I would say it," Mendenhall said. "I would expect him to do it now after having watched a level of increased leadership, excitement, execution and really demonstrate to not only the team, but to everyone around BYU football [and] remind them of how capable he really is. And he showed that Saturday, and I think he will show it again this upcoming Saturday."
Mendenhall said Nelson was actually injured at the beginning of BYU's second drive Saturday, and not on the TD throw to Hoffman when he was hit while releasing the ball.
"He played about five plays [with the injury]," the coach said.
It is that type of toughness that endeared Nelson to his teammates and caused them to rally around him when he replaced Heaps five games ago. Will they jump behind Heaps in a similar fashion?
Offensive lineman Marco Thorson said at Monday's news conference that they already have, and showed it Saturday.
"Oh, of course. We love Jake. Jake brings a unique talent to the team," said offensive lineman Marco Thorson. "When he is back there, he has that innate ability to make plays. He's a competitor. He will pick us up and we love him. We will play hard for him."
Mendenhall mentioned last week that Heaps might be open to redshirting next season, a notion that Heaps said he didn't want to talk about until this season is over. Monday, Mendenhall was asked what Heaps needs to do in Nelson's absence to regain his starting role.
Continue to be patient and improve, he said.
"He played very well last year, and will continue to play well this year based on when Riley can come back, or maybe if he doesn't," Mendenhall said. "I think [Heaps] might be our quarterback who finishes the season."
BYU's quarterbacks in 2011
Player • Games Plays Rush Pass Total Avg/g
Riley Nelson • 10 193 379 1,104 1,483 148.3
Jake Heaps • 7 229 -57 1,214 1,157 165.3
New Mexico State at BYU
P Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPNU