Riley Nelson spent the winter studying films of BYU's star quarterbacks of the past, going back to Virgil Carter in the 1960s.
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman contends Nelson belongs in that group, which is saying a lot.
That belief runs contrary to those of us who have always perceived Nelson as a BYU version of Tim Tebow a good athlete and a playmaker, but not a genuine QB capable of throwing the football well enough to beat top-tier opponents. Actually, it required a conversion of Doman's thinking as well.
With the Cougars concluding spring drills this week, Doman shared the results of his own offseason evaluation. "I looked at myself as a coach and I thought, 'I need to give [Nelson] a chance to really see how he can succeed in this offense,' " Doman said. "So we are running the BYU offense right now."
To appreciate the impact of that statement, you almost have to hear how Doman said "BYU." He invoked the school's name with a mixture of reverence for the program, allegiance to Nelson and defiance to the doubters, in response to my question about tailoring his offense to Nelson's skills.
His observation came during an interview in which Doman, with his usual candor, basically blamed himself for Jake Heaps' failings and credited Nelson with salvaging Doman's first season as a coordinator. Utah State's Matt Wells and Utah's Brian Johnson should learn from Doman's experience in taking over their offenses this year (although the Utes have a veteran quarterback, Jordan Wynn).
"I was way too complex, tried too many things and never created an identity for this offense," Doman said.
So Doman is simplifying the scheme. That's not a commentary on Nelson's ability, because Doman says Nelson can do everything BYU's quarterbacks have always done in an offense that's based on the QB's timing, decision making and accuracy.
In 2011, Nelson produced some statistics supporting that claim. After completing 57 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions, Nelson ranks eighth in the country among returning quarterbacks in passing efficiency.
This is where judging Nelson gets tricky, though. After four games last season, with Heaps taking nearly every snap, BYU ranked 111th in total offense. But the Cougars had faced Texas and Central Florida, which finished the season in the top 11 in total defense, plus Utah (38th) and Mississippi, which ranked only 90th but still featured SEC athletes.
So while the quarterback change obviously sparked the offense, which climbed to 41st nationally by the end of the season, Nelson faced only one top-40 defense (Texas Christian's, 32nd).
In the Armed Forces Bowl against Tulsa's No. 87 defense, Nelson had completed only 15 of 38 passes before hitting his last two attempts, including the touchdown pass to Cody Hoffman. He was intercepted twice, and Tulsa's defenders had the ball in their hands on other occasions. Yet Nelson managed to win the game, scrambling for a first down on a fourth-and-9 play on the final drive and throwing the winning pass.
That poise and playmaking ability make him intriguing, going into a season that will determine how he's remembered at BYU, along with all those other quarterbacks he's studying and trying to emulate. John Beck and Max Hall, BYU's most recent senior QBs, each went 11-2 with some signature wins.
To match that record, Nelson would have to beat at least two of these opponents on the road: Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
That's asking a lot. I'd say if Nelson wins even one of those four games, he will have validated Doman's opinion of him and changed mine.
How does Riley stack up?
Riley Nelson will enter his senior season with a 7-3 record as BYU's starting quarterback. Based on a projection of 9-4 in 2012, here's how Nelson would rank among Cougar QBs since BYU's passing era began in 1973 (minimum 10 starts):
Quarterback Years Record Pct.
Robbie Bosco 1984-85 24-3 .889
Brandon Doman 2000-01 14-2 .875
Jim McMahon 1978-81 26-4 .867
Marc Wilson 1977-79 22-4 .846
Max Hall 2007-09 32-7 .820
Steve Sarkisian 1995-96 21-5 .808
Steve Young 1981-83 20-6 .769
Ty Detmer 1988-91 29-9-2 .750
Gifford Nielsen 1975-77 17-6 .739
Sean Covey 1987-88 13-5 .722
Riley Nelson 2010-12 16-7 .695
Kevin Feterik 1997-99 21-12 .636
Steve Lindsley 1986 7-4 .636
Jake Heaps 2010-11 10-6 .625
John Beck 2003-06 22-16 .579
Gary Sheide 1973-74 11-8-1 .575
Bret Engemann 2000-02 5-6 .455
Matt Berry 2000-04 5-10 .333