In 2005, I played football for Dixie High School. We had the pleasure of getting beaten soundly by two of the best quarterbacks in Utah, that year. We all saw what the experts saw—Nelson had the better team, but Lark was the better prospect. Nelson vs Lark was simply what people wanted to see for the state championship—the ‘Who will be the better QB’ question was between Lark and Ok State commit Alex Cate. Lark played for Pine View which is Dixie’s biggest rival. Lark was 8/9 for 228 yards with 1 TD and he ran for another as Pine View won 42-0. We played Nelson’s Logan High School in the first round of the 3A state playoffs. He had a good game statistically ( 2 TD pass, 3 TD rush), but threw 2 INTs in the first half. Most of their scoring came in the 4th quarter, when our offense went 4-and-out repeatedly, with a 38-12 final. Logan ended up beating Pine View in the state championship 56-21. I was there, but I was so giddy about Logan’s 49-0 first half lead over our rival that I was unable to focus on comparing the two QBs. The next time I saw either play was at BYU.
Here’s a brief recruiting breakdown:
Lark—Offers from BYU, Oregon, Arizona St, Utah. Scout-#16 QB (Ahead of current NFL QBs Sam Bradford, Christian Ponder, Greg McElroy, TJ Yates, Colin Kaepernick and John Skelton). ESPN-#19 QB. Rivals-#25 QB.
Nelson—Offers from Utah, Utah St. Scout-Unranked. ESPN-Unranked. Rivals-2 Star Safety.
So what happened between then and 2009 when Nelson became Max Hall’s backup?
Riley Nelson was pretty impressive as a true freshman at Utah St. He took over an offense that did not score in its first four games. (I’m just gonna wait and let that sink in…) Nelson threw for 120 yards, 2 TD’s including the game-winner with 55 sec left, no INT’s and ran for 76 yards in a 13-12 win over Fresno in his first start. He had a few more decent games and finished the season splitting time with former starter Leon Jackson. Nelson’s stats the last three games that season—9/36 for 136 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT.
Now I’m not here to rip Riley Nelson. He was a true freshman that rejuvenated a terrible team. But, in hindsight, the 2006 season at Utah St was clearly a microcosm for his entire BYU career. He sat behind a more experienced QB; stepped in unexpectedly and pulled out a big win; played well against weak opponents; and, finally, he struggled as teams figured out his style. One major difference is that the replaced QB got a chance when Nelson struggled at Utah St. In the latter case, Jake Heaps never got the chance to redeem himself from his poor start.
Now, we have all seen the same thing the last couple seasons. Riley Nelson has received more in-game chances than Jake Heaps or James Lark. I believe this is because Bronco Mendenhall, as a former linebacker and a defensive coach, loves the fire and (I can’t help it..) grit with which Riley plays the position. Clearly the BYU coaching staff has struggled to develop traditional, drop-back quarterbacks, which leaves more opportunities for athletes that can get the job done without proper coaching. I do not know who has made the decisions on quarterbacks this season, therefore it is not my position to claim whose fault this season’s failures were. I do feel comfortable, however, stating that James Lark never had the chance to show what made him a great recruit until the last regular season game of his career. That game, in my opinion, earned him one more start.