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Cougar Tracks: Running Into Trouble

Cougar Tracks: Running Into Trouble



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

It was before the start of the 2010 season, and BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall was talking about the remarkable run of health enjoyed by his starting quarterbacks in the seasons from 2005 through 2009.

John Beck and Max Hall had started 63 of 64 games during that five-year span, and Mendenhall said at the time that the string of healthy starts "speaks to our schemes. Seldom does the opponent have a clear shot at the quarterback before the ball is delivered. Usually the only time our quarterbacks get hit is when they don't read the play out correctly. The ball is gone too fast."

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Mendenhall made those comments just as he was about to experiment with an ill-fated two-quarterback system featuring one mobile signal-caller in Riley Nelson, and one pocket passer in Jake Heaps.

Speaking of the gamble in using a running QB as part of the game plan, Mendenhall said "there is risk, it has to be acknowledged, but if it's a strength, it has to be highlighted. I feel a lot better doing it with two quarterbacks we're confident in. That doesn't reduce the risk for (Nelson), but it does reduce the risk for the team."

"I think it's a delicate balance, because (running is) what he does so well," said Mendenhall of Nelson. "But if you also look at the wear and tear, he probably couldn't hold that up for 12 games… I don't think anyone could sustain the wear and tear."

Not only did Nelson not hold up for 12 games, a season-ending shoulder injury ended his 2010 campaign in the third game of the season, at Florida State; Heaps battled through rookie growing pains and finished out the season.

In 2011, after Heaps struggled through his September starts, Nelson was called in to replace him, and while he proved to be an effective passer (ending the season ranked 16th in pass efficiency), Nelson's mobility became his true calling card and a key component of rookie coordinator Brandon Doman's offensive attack.

Averaging about ten carries per game, Nelson picked up an average of 4.5 yards per carry in forcing opposing defenses to account for a shifty signal-caller. Nelson's adeptness in keeping plays alive helped BYU become a national leader in third-down conversion percentage.

Nelson's successful 2011 season hinted at a change in the Cougar coaches' quarterbacking philosophy, and in a post-season meeting with the media, Mendenhall said at the time that it "is not overstated" to say that BYU might be shifting its approach at the quarterback position.

"I like that style" said Mendenhall of utilizing a mobile QB, "and I like quarterbacks that play with that style. I like the competitive spirit, but I also like how difficult it is to defend."

"As I'm sorting out what kind of offensive identity I'd like us to have, those are the kind of quarterbacks I like. And that doesn't mean that they can't throw it, because that is still really important."

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Which brings us to the 2012 season, and a quarterback crisis at the season's midway point—a crisis created by injuries to Nelson and freshman Taysom Hill, both of whom were hurt not on scrambles, sacks or pocket hits, but on designed quarterback draws: "clear shots" to which Mendenhall alluded in 2010.

Nelson took two first-half hits to his back in the Weber State game on September 8th; he left that game at halftime and labored mightily through each of the next two contests-—both narrow BYU losses, at Utah and Boise State.

Mendenhall pulled the plug on Nelson during the week of the Hawai'i game, handing the reins to Hill, who became BYU's first-ever true freshman QB to win in his first start. Hill's 112 passing yards were highlighted by two scoring tosses, but the eye-opening stat line was 15 rushes for 143 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown scamper.

In Taysom Hill, BYU appeared to have found not only Nelson's successor, but a super-sized freshman version of the scrappy senior captain.

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Last Friday night versus Utah State, Hill was once again leading BYU through the air, and on the ground. His passing yards more than doubled, and while his rushing yardage dipped, to 80 yards, his number of carries increased, to 19.

It was the 19th and final carry of the night that brought BYU's "new look" at quarterback into sharp, and staggering relief, as Hill suffered a serious knee injury on the play—when only a kneel-down was required.

Snapping the ball on 1st-down-and-10, with 1:13 remaining, and with Utah State possessing only a single remaining timeout, BYU could have taken three consecutive knees, drained the clock and ended the game, with a 6-3 win safely intact.

Instead, for whatever reason, a QB draw was called on first down, Hill ran to the right, and Aggie safety Brian Suite hit Hill's planted left leg. While the exact severity of the knee injury is not yet known, an injury has been confirmed; scattered reports citing various sources have Hill on the shelf for the remainder of the season (BYU says an update is forthcoming on Monday).

Had a kneel-down been called and had Hill ended the game in full health, the current outcry over the risky call would never have occurred, but the rumblings about Hill's workload were already being heard, and acknowledged, by Mendenhall himself.

The coach said Hill's 19 carries were "too many," and particularly in light of the injuries to his top two QBs, the head coach may very well be re-thinking his commitment to implementing a mobile quarterback as a central element of the game plan. Mendenhall may indeed be remembering his own words about "risk," "clear shots" and "wear and tear."

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Since iron man Max Hall made the last of his 39 consecutive starts at BYU, the Cougars have endured a non-stop rotation behind center.

Nelson started three games while sharing snaps with Heaps, then got hurt; Heaps started the next 15 games. Replacing an ineffective Heaps, Nelson started the next five games, then got hurt; Heaps started the following game. Nelson returned and started the next six games, then got hurt; Hill started the next two games, then he got hurt.

Saturday, when BYU hosts no. 10 Oregon State, we expect Nelson to be back in the saddle, with an injured Hill sent to the sidelines. The question seems no longer to be whether Nelson will get hurt or re-injured again, but only when.

Playing five straight seasons with QBs who had a throw-first mandate, Mendenhall's Cougars went 49-15; the last three of those seasons resulted in a 32-7 record. BYU is now in its third season with a two-QB rotation, running QBs, freshman QBs, or some combination thereof; a 21-11 record has been the result.

Riley Nelson, when healthy, is a valuable weapon. Taysom Hill, given health and a little more experience, can be spectacular. Both players' ability to maximize their collegiate potential may come down to whether the latest definition of a "BYU quarterback" is actually viable, over the long term.

This is not to say that the Cougars cannot or should not take occasional advantage of gifted QBs' athleticism, strength and speed. However, the last two and a half seasons seem to suggest that like BYU's passing roots, the quarterbacks' feet may need to be more firmly planted in the backfield.

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Greg Wrubell

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