Fort Worth, Texas • Receiver Ross Apo didn't hesitate when asked if the BYU Cougars will have trouble adjusting to life without Jake Heaps, the highly touted sophomore quarterback who announced two days after the regular season that he was leaving the program.
"Nah," Apo said with a big grin. "We got Riley."
And so it is with the Cougars as they prepare to meet up with 8-4 Tulsa on Friday in the Armed Forces Bowl at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas, about a 45-minute drive from where they have practiced this week.
While disappointed that Heaps decided to bolt for Kansas, the Cougars are genuinely confident that Riley Nelson can lead them not only to their third straight bowl win for the first time in school history, but to a successful season next year when he's a senior.
"Riley is the type of player that makes the rest of us believe we are going to win," said offensive tackle Matt Reynolds. "He gives everybody else around him that confidence that you need to win."
If Nelson stays healthy and that's a big if considering his aggressive, fearless playing style and the fact that he's been injured several times the past two seasons he will be the Cougars' unquestioned starter in 2012, an amazing turn of events for a guy who was pretty much forgotten back on Sept. 3 when the Cougars eked out a 14-13 win at Ole Miss under Heaps.
So irrelevant was Nelson to BYU coaches' plans that he was allowed to play the role of "gunner" on the punt coverage teams. Just look at him now.
"Obviously, I'm in a pretty good spot," he said after a practice last week in Provo. "But as everybody should know by now, I am not the type to take anything for granted."
As has been well-documented, teammates say Nelson has the leadership ability and poise on and off the field that Heaps never quite displayed.
"Riley has just stepped in and won games for us, and has been doing an awesome job in the games," Apo said, using words such as "freak" and "animal" to describe Nelson's positive attributes. "Everybody is happy he's here, and everybody is just trying to move on and put [Heaps' departure] behind us."
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said Nelson's running ability and elusiveness set him apart, although prior to bowl game preparations the staff had not added any running plays for him besides the quarterback draw play that was already in the playbook.
Before throwing for a career-high 363 yards against Hawaii and rushing for minus-3, Nelson had rushed for at least 60 yards in five straight games. The Cougars may need him to rediscover his rushing legs against Tulsa, however, because primary ballcarrier Michael Alisa is still nursing a sprained ankle suffered in the Hawaii game and is questionable for Friday.
Since emerging with 91 rushing yards in the San Jose State game, Alisa has rushed for 51 yards or more in five of the last six games. And Nelson hasn't totally recovered from the lung and rib cartilage injuries suffered against Idaho.
"Probably the best thing is my legs are back under me. In the Hawaii game I got a little bit fatigued. Obviously, my lungs and heart are back in midseason condition," Nelson said. "But as far as the soreness goes, still there. Not fully healed that way. There was some residual, along with the ribs. I got landed on pretty good. So I had some shoulder sprains that are still sore, things like that."
The knock on Nelson has always been that he doesn't have a big, accurate arm. But Doman said Nelson's 25-for-37 passing performance against Hawaii was proof that he's improving.
"We want to throw it 35 times [a game], and if [quarterbacks] can't do that, they can't play here, no matter how mobile they are," Doman said. "If you can find a guy that can do both, gosh, I think they are the hardest ones to defend of all of them."
Riley Nelson's rise
• Entered in the third quarter of BYU's fifth game of the season, against Utah State, and engineered a stirring come-from-behind win.
• Threw three touchdown passes in each game in wins over Hawaii, Oregon State and San Jose State.
• Rushed for at least 60 yards in five straight games.
• Returned from lung and rib injuries suffered against Idaho to throw for a career-high 363 yards in 41-20 win over Hawaii.