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But if you allow yourself to imagine that little else changed and Nelson signed on with Kyle Whittingham and Lotulelei had gone to BYU, it’s easy to come up with a theory that would have them staring each other in the eyes on Saturday.
Nelson would have redshirted in 2006 instead of playing, as he did at Utah State. He would have served his LDS Church mission and returned in 2009 as the change-up quarterback behind Terrance Cain and Jordan Wynn.
BYU at UtahSaturday, 8 p.m.
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Coulda, woulda, shoulda?
Utah and BYU’s roster are populated by players who chose one school over the other. A few of the most notable:
Could’ve been Utes
QB Riley Nelson
OL Ryker Mathews
DB Joe Sampson
OL Braden Hansen
Could’ve been Cougars
DL Star Lotulelei
DL Dave Kruger
RB Harvey Langi (serving mission)
LB/DL Trevor Reilly
When Wynn got injured in 2010 it would have been Nelson, not Cain, who stepped in. Last year, Nelson would have replaced the reinjured Wynn for the final nine games.
Jon Hays would have never come to Utah.
Nelson would have run onto the field to cheers in Logan last week when Wynn was injured because, although Ute fans hate him now, he would have been just as much of a cult-like figure in red as he is in blue.
Perhaps he would have led Utah to a comeback victory against the Aggies as he did for the Cougars a year ago in Provo.
Nelson said he wonders sometimes what would have happened had he gone to Utah.
"You know what?" he said this week. "I have thought about it. I wouldn’t get guff for growing my hair long if I was up there."
At BYU, Lotulelei would have been the nose tackle in a 3-4 defensive front and had to fight through even more double teams.
If Lotulelei had put more weight into the wishes of his family, who lived for years in Orem, he would have stuck with BYU after leaving Snow College.
"My dad would take me and my little brother [BYU and Utah recruit Lowell] to the games all the time," Lotulelei said. "The biggest part of that decision was pretty much my parents, my dad wanting me to go over there."
He said this week he could have had just as much success with the Cougars as he had with the Utes.
"They have produced some pretty good defensive linemen out of there," he said.
After recording the sack, Lotulelei sat on the turf next to Nelson, who slowly rolled over, clutching his gut. Satisfied for the moment, the best player in BYU history looked around a silent Rice-Eccles Stadium.
And then, from the southwest corner where the Cougars fans sat, he heard them cheering.
Tribune reporter Jay Drew contributed to this story.
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