Provo • It is an adventure.
Those are the first words out of BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall's mouth when he is asked what it is like to be around Riley Nelson.
In other words, take everything you know about the typical BYU quarterback, and toss it on the other side of Mount Timpanogos when it comes to describing the 6-foot, 205-pound senior who will be the Cougars' unquestioned leader this season.
Not since Jim McMahon has BYU had such a colorful character, such a buck-the-trend guy as the unflappable lefty from Logan as its starting quarterback.
"Riley is just his own dude," says tight end Marcus Mathews. "Fun-loving, free-spirited, never-a-dull-moment, unpredictable. With Riley, all those descriptions apply."
John Beck, Max Hall, Robbie Bosco, Marc Wilson and Gifford Nielsen all former toe-the-line BYU quarterbacks he is not.
But while the non-LDS McMahon ran roughshod over the school's strict Honor Code summer days spent guzzling beers at nearby Riverside Country Club is just one of his post-career admissions the returned missionary Nelson tip-toes along its edges, at least when it comes to its grooming guidelines.
He pushes the envelope with the length of his beloved hair, and occasionally shows up for interviews with three days of stubble on his chin, his cap on backward. It is not to make the powers-that-be at buttoned-down BYU just a bit uncomfortable, he insists, but because shaving is simply not a priority.
"I get busy. I forget," he shrugs.
Nelson has been known to wear a cut-off jersey at practice to show off his six-pack abs, inspiring the Riley's Abs handle on Twitter. He occasionally wears a do-rag under his shiny white helmet. Did Steve Young ever do that? Young, whom Nelson is often compared to because of his running ability and left-handedness, earned a law degree; Nelson wants to follow in his father's footsteps and become a doctor.
"Riley is very strong-willed," Mendenhall acknowledges. "He's very independent. He's a risk-taker, and that's what makes him good. There is a delicate balance with him. You don't want him to be confined and restricted so that he plays so tightly within the system that it takes away those things.
"You want to give him enough freedom but not too much to where he takes unnecessary chances. But we err on the side of giving him more freedom than less. That seems to be how he plays best."
Mendenhall was mostly describing Nelson's on-field actions and personality, but teammates say the same style defines his personal life. They say his daily modus operandi isn't reckless, but use words and phrases such as "fearless" and "comfortable with himself" to characterize the way the Logan High product and Utah State transfer goes about his business.
"Very entertaining to be around," says receiver Cody Hoffman, Nelson's former roommate. "The thing is, he hasn't changed at all. Before, you wouldn't have known he was the starting quarterback, and now you wouldn't know that he is. He just does things his own way. Always has."
Pressed for a story or anecdote that illustrates Nelson's off-field personality, Mathews said there's nothing that would spark a phone call from South Temple to athletic director Tom Holmoe's office, but acknowledged, "I am trying to think of something I can say to a reporter that I can get away with saying. I know a couple stories, but they are not for print."
On a campus where not fitting in is sometimes frowned upon, Nelson takes a different approach.
"He makes his own fashion," said Mathews. "He makes things popular. He's a trend-setter. He wears stuff that no one else would dare wear. He has stuff in his closet that I wouldn't touch. But he rocks it. That's probably it, more than anything."
Yet somehow, BYU officials appear to be embracing their quirky quarterback.
Nelson estimates that he has spoken at more than three dozen public appearances since Jan. 1, most of them to school and church groups, and most set up by BYU.
"I am a knucklehead, a 24-year-old college kid," Nelson says. "I don't have any wisdom or anything like that. But my experiences have been unique, so if my sharing those can help provide a different insight to help a person with a problem they have, then it is all worth it. I mean, half the time the kids are on their phones anyway, and that's fine. But if one kid listens and one kid decides to change for the better, then it is all worth it."
The off-field life of Riley
• BYU quarterback enjoys softball, boating and wake-boarding
• Known among teammates for his odd fashion sense, trend-setting attire
• Has had more than 35 public speaking appearances since Jan. 1
• Speaks Spanish fluently, after LDS Church mission to Barcelona, Spain