Meeting the media after his team's first practice in preparation for the Poinsettia Bowl, head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday that quarterback Riley Nelson is "not healthy enough right now to be considered as the (Poinsettia Bowl) starter yet."
"We've got time," said Mendenhall, but "at this point, we have to plan on James (Lark) working and going forward, and then just wait to see where Riley catches up."
Mendenhall said Nelson "practiced a little bit today. Still not 100% (with a rib cartilage injury)...he did get some work, but I would consider it light at best, if you were to describe it."
James Lark took the majority of the first team snaps on Monday; Nelson said that he himself felt "good" in limited reps.
"These last two weeks were good to help heal up," said Nelson after practice. "(I'm) still tender and sore; I haven't been fully medically cleared, but hopefully by the end of this week I will be. Went out and threw today, took reps, and felt pretty good...my legs feel really good, just waiting for that rib to heal up."
Nelson said if he had to play today, he could "get a novocaine shot and play."
"The goal is to be at 100% or at least to where I don't think about (the injury)...that wouldn't be the case today, but by the 20th, I'm almost positive that it will be."
"We have time," said Nelson, "so I'm encouraged."
Dealing with three fractured vertebrae since the Weber State game in the second week of the season, and now with his latest injury suffered in a late-season loss at San Jose State, Nelson, when asked how important it would be to him, personally, that he play in his last game as a Cougar, said it's "extremely important."
"I haven't gone through what I've gone through to sputter out towards the end," Nelson said. "I really want to finish and I want to finish strong. Hopefully it can work out that way."
Of BYU's 7-5 season and his personal travails, Nelson said "physically, it's been really hard, breaking my back, and then the ribs, and having to fight through it, and never really being at 100%. That's been hard, and then that kicks it into mentally, and psychologically, just having to deal with not being 100%, and knowing that you're not the player that you could be."
"Then, of course, the 'what-ifs' and 'if-onlys' creep in."
Noting that the difficult season has allowed him to learn a lot about himself and forge strong bonds with teammates Nelson said "even though it wasn't what we envisioned, starting off, I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Nelson acknowledged that the early-season back injury "was a lot more intense" than he anticipated, and that he "really underestimated the severity of the injury."
"Last week, when we were doing lifting and conditioning, it flared up a little bit, so I'm still not over the hump... but you know, what can you do? We battled, and we kept battling through the season and here we are with an opportunity to play a great opponent in a tremendous bowl, so that's we're looking forward to; we're in the present now, and looking forward to the future."
Nelson called his persistent injury issues part of the "nature of the beast; it's college football. Stay healthy."
"But it's hard for a six-foot, 200-pound guy to to do," said Nelson, "that's what I've learned over my five years. But I'll do my best, and hopefully the season can finish out with a win--that's all I'm worried about."
Asked if he ends his BYU career with any regrets, Nelson said "no; none whatsoever. Everything that's happened is out of my control--it really is; injuries and depth charts and all those things."
"I stay consistent," said Nelson, "and I came to work every day and gave my heart and soul to the game and to my teammates and the program. I sleep good at night. Not a single regret."
Asked if he expects to start against San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl if deemed healthy, Nelson said simply: "Yes."
If Nelson is not ready to go, James Lark will get his second career start, 26 days after his starting debut at New Mexico State resulted in a 34-for-50 passing performance that netted 382 yards and six touchdowns. Lark called the outing "a dream come true."
"I couldn't be more happy and proud of my teammates, and they made it so easy on me. I was grateful to them."
About the current uncertainty over a starter in San Diego, Lark on Monday said that that he and Nelson "have been handling this for a long time; we just go out and play--whatever the coaches tell us to do, we go out and do it. Whatever happens, happens. I want to end my BYU career with a victory, whether I play or not...regardless of that situation, I'm going to give it my best effort."
On the same day that the University of Colorado found its new head coach, Mendenhall confirmed that after the Pac-12 school got turned down by Butch Jones late last week, CU did inquire after BYU's head coach.
"Things happened so quickly," said Mendenhall. "There was interest expressed, but there was no interview."
Asked if he is "selective" regarding potential job opportunities elsewhere, Mendenhall said "I would say, definitely, 'selective' would be too mild a word. I'm really happy here."
Appearing at a Poinsettia Bowl press conference in San Diego last Wednesday, Mendenhall was asked about being connected with the Colorado coaching vacancy, and said at that time there had been no communication between the two parties. Mendenhall says it was only in the days that followed, after Jones' decision, that Colorado made its inquiry.
Regarding bowl preparations, Mendenhall says his team will practice Monday through Friday of this week, take Saturday and Sunday off, then practice Monday through Wednesday next week in San Diego. The coach says it is essentially the same model the team has used for "the last five years--slight tweak here and there." BYU, under Mendenhall, has won a school-record three consecutive bowl games.
On being back out on the (indoor) practice field Monday afternoon, Mendenhall said "it was really good. I was getting bored."
While Nelson's health will of course be a going concern leading up to next Thursday's game, Mendenhall said the "biggest question mark" is center/guard Braden Hansen, who is listed as "day-to-day" while he continues to recover from a late-season adductor injury.
Mendenhall was asked about bowl participation as a recruiting tool and he said "it's always addressed, just because because we've never not gone."
"So, when players consider coming to BYU...they're going to play an extra game. That's the beginning. The next part becomes, how well we play in those (bowl games)."
"It matters to me to play well," said Mendenhall. "It matters to me to finish the season on a high note. It matters for our seniors and providing that experience, and I just like the feeling a lot better when you end on that note--not only having a great experience at the game, but playing well."
On BYU's future bowl prospects after the 2013 postseason agreement with the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Mendenhall says "we've kind of been reached out to, over the last couple of years, pretty heavily. It will be interesting to see if that follows through, and where we might end up."