Is Nelson Really Better Than Heaps?

By Matthew Shannon


Last Friday night BYU fans were treated to a memorable comeback, the likes of which have not been seen for many years.  With 5:06 left in the third quarter Riley Nelson replaced Jake Heaps and led the Cougars back from an 11 point deficit to a 27-24 win over the Aggies.  Once again the Cougar fan base is divided.  Many are saying Heaps should still retain his starting role against San Jose State, but just as many are saying Nelson should move into the starting position.  What are the BYU coaches to do?  Let’s analyze both Quarterbacks and see how they stack up.

First let’s take a look at Heaps.  His stats for the night were 11/25 for 107 yards with no touchdowns and no picks.  Not terribly impressive.  When I went back and broke down Heaps’ passing I noticed some glaring realities.  18/25 of his attempts came from the shotgun formation.  9/18 of those attempts were completed, but there were 5 balls that should have been caught.  They weren’t easy catches, but catchable.  One of those plays was a fade to Apo where Apo should have made the play, but ended up out of bounds anyway.  Apo never should have let himself be out of position against a corner where he is both stronger and faster.  14/18 with a touchdown would have been a much better line for Heaps in the shotgun.

Under Center Heaps went 1/4 for 23 yards.  Believe it or not I saw a lot of improvement in this area for Heaps.  Again he had one ball dropped and another batted down at the line.  Heaps needs to continue to work on passing from under center.  Being closer to the trenches makes it easier to get a ball batted down on you.  The dropped ball was as perfectly placed as it could have been.  Hoffman was streaking down the sideline and couldn’t come up with a 35 yard ball that would have put them at the one yard line if not in the end zone.  The forth pass was badly overthrown to a wide open Austin Holt that would have gone for a big gain.  However, the one completion he had was a thing of beauty.  He hit Austin Holt in stride with a perfect throw and a USU defender was pancaked as a result.  That ability to gain yards after the catch is what has been missing to this point for the Cougars.  So in this area Heaps should have been 2/4 with a possible touchdown to Hoffman.

I realize that play action is technically under center as well, but I decided to separate them into two different categories because the execution is so different.  In this area Heaps went 1/3 with the only completion for 0 yards.  The other two attempts were overthrown.  One of them Jake had all the time he needed and simply put too much on the ball.  The other he had a defender in his face, but should have made the play regardless.  Heaps is clearly struggling with the play action for reasons I covered in my previous article, so I won’t go into it right now.  I will say he needs to get used to the timing of the play action and so does the offense as a whole.

The result of my analysis is that Jake’s night could have and should have been much better(17/25 with two TD’s and around 200 yards).  He made some mistakes and overthrew some balls, but there were plays that his receivers needed to make and it didn’t happen.  I was pleasantly surprised and hope to see Jake continue to progress.

Now on to Riley Nelson.  I have to give the guy a lot of credit.  With a little over twenty minutes left in the game he made it happen through the air and with his legs.  So why are so many BYU fans still hoping Jake gets the start tomorrow?  After taking a closer look at Riley’s performance I see where they may be coming from.

Nelson completed 10/14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns.  He also gained 62 yards on eleven carries which made him BYU’s leading rusher.  Of the 14 pass attempts Nelson took, 13 were from shotgun with the one remaining a play action.  This can be looked at two different ways.  Either coach Doman didn’t think Riley could do it from under center or it could have been a result of BYU playing from behind.  My opinion is both.  The one play action pass Nelson completed was made by Hoffman.  He made an incredible diving catch.  The play action itself left a lot to be desired.  Nelson is clearly not effective at making the play fake, but again I have to give him credit for the 22 yard gain.

The remaining shotgun attempts went 9/13 for 122 yards and two scores.  The best pass from Nelson of the night came on a 24 yard strike to Hoffman, the first of Nelson’s two TD passes.  The ball was placed where only Hoffman could get it and again Hoffman made an incredible catch and was able to get a foot down in the front right corner of the end zone.  However, this is why many fans want Heaps instead of Nelson.  Of the 10 completions Nelson made only three were thrown for 10 yards or more.  I’m not counting the tipped TD to Mathews, but that does include the hailmary to Jacobson.  So essentially only two passes were completed for more than 10 yards and they were both to Hoffman and incredible catches.   Of the four incompletions, three were short passes and Nelson just missed on them.  The remaining was a long ball intended for Apo, but was behind and high.  It was not a stellar night for Nelson throwing the ball downfield.

Riley Nelson is a gamer and I have to give him credit for getting the win, but going forward I still think Heaps is the future.  Utah State wasn’t ready for a mobile quarterback, but future opposition will be.  The shotgun QB draw and mainly short passes won’t work against TCU.  As much as I respect this USU team they aren’t as good on defense as TCU.  Especially since TCU will know what to plan for.  If Riley had started the USU game and they had planned for him that game might have been Utah State’s second win of the season.  As much as I love the way Riley plays the game I hope Bronco starts Heaps, but knowing Bronco I believe he will start Nelson.  Bronco loves to reward success on the field with more playing time and I believe this situation is no different.

The other side to this whole story is the discrepancy in how the offense played for Riley and how they played for Heaps.  Some have said they were making the plays for Riley and as I previously stated, they weren’t making them for Heaps.  A more accurate statement is Hoffman made them for Riley and not for Heaps.  The majority of Riley’s passes were short and to the backs.  A couple went to Jacobson and Mathews.  Apo was targeted once and if I were Apo I would be discouraged by how that went if Riley was going to be my QB going forward.  Whether or not this has any true meaning I don’t know, but with receivers like Hoffman and Apo we need a QB that can stretch the field and utilize their size and speed.  That is simply not what Riley brings to the table.  In the end Bronco has to make a decision and rally the team behind that player.  What the players want is anyone’s guess outside that locker room.

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  • DJH

    While I agree with most of what you said, I have to disagree with the fact that Heaps would be better to utilize Apo amd Hoffman. To be honest I have been disapointed with Apo so far. He simply isn’t getting open as much as I hoped he would down field. I expect more from an athlete like him amd especially with his long stride he should be getting by defenders with more ease. With Hoffman, I don’t think that he would be the type of.guy to just not try as hard when heaps is QB. He has always had a tougher time pulling in the tough catches. I think Riley came in and created plays for the offense and the excitement carried over. He might not be a better passer than heaps, but he is definitely the better play maker. An option quarterbaxk like Riley is hard to defend, even if defenses prepare specifically for him. I really liked the breakdown of their passes though, it was a fun read.

  • Farid

    Excellent analysis. Heaps is the better QB but Nelson has all the intangibles. We hear that word all the time in sports but it’s obvious here. Nelson has minimal talent but has that extra “moxie” to get the job done.

    Heaps, on the other hand, has so much talent that he’s never faced adversity, never had to dig down deep for that extra gear to win. Once he figures that out, he’ll survive.

    I don’t know how hold you are, but Heaps is reminding me a lot of a QB named Kevin Feterik, who came in as a can’t miss prospect from CA and started a few games as a freshman (’96-’99 or so). He was exceedingly average and just never became on of BYU’s elite.

    Heaps could become the next Detmer, or he could become the next Feterik. Only time will tell.