Not so fast.
Nelson entered the scene in relief for Jake Heaps a little more than half way through game five. After leading a miraculous 96-yard drive to complete an improbable come back win, the starting job was his. Nelson went on to finish the year with a pass efficiency rating of 152.9 that was 17th best in the nation and 14th highest in BYU history. He completed 57.4 percent of his passes (116 of 202) for 1,717 yards with 19 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. These were good totals for someone who only played half the season.
That final stat is the first potential problem. The season was 13 games long. Having taken over in the third quarter of game five, Nelson should have played almost two-thirds of the season. Early in game ten, however, Nelson was injured. He missed the rest of that game and all of the next. For the second consecutive year, he missed time due to injury. This recurring problem could become a major nuisance this year.
The second potential problem would be that defenses have figured out how to defend Nelson. Besides passing for over 1,700 yards, Nelson rushed for 392 yards. Replacing Heaps mid-season with a different style of play caught opposing teams off guard. With all offseason to study game film of Nelson, they may have figured out how to take away his greatest asset—his feet. Nelson doesn’t have a “NFL arm” and has admitted himself that his throwing mechanics need work. Presumably, he will make some improvement during the offseason, but how much? The improvements Nelson made between 2010 and 2011 were very noticeable. Can he continue to develop and make a leap like Steve Young did from 1982-83?
How far BYU goes this season will, probably, be very closely linked to Nelson and how much and how well he plays.
Should Nelson suffer a major injury, or is flat out ineffective, who should take his place? James Lark is the easy answer, but is he the right answer?
Over the last two seasons, Lark has played considerable minutes in mop-up duty. He has completed 4 of 9 pass attempts for 58 yards. He has earned the respect of teammates by working hard and showing great improvement, despite never having much hope to be the starter since returning home from his mission following the 2009 season. Lark has given everyone a reason to believe he could fill in well for Nelson. Lark is considered more of a pocket passer than Nelson, but he can still move his feet. Lark did amass 600 yards rushing during his senior year of high school.
Why wouldn’t Lark be the right answer? The future. BYU will need a new quarterback next season. Depending on the exact situation, it may be better to play one of the quarterbacks who will still be around then.
Brandon Doman was recently quoted as saying he doesn’t want to redshirt either of the two transfers fresh off their mission. Freshman Taysom Hill committed to Stanford in high school, but never enrolled. Sophomore Ammon Olsen played, minimally, at Southern Utah University in 2009 before his mission. They are both less than a year removed from missionary service. Realistically, little should be expected of them this year. Hill, however, has become the odds-on favorite to win the starting job in 2013.
Besides speeding up his timetable to graduate, I don’t understand the urgency to play Hill this season. Facing the first-team BYU defense all year on the scout team would help prepare him for the defenses BYU will face in 2013. Hill can suit up for all the games to experience the game day and travel routine. Using Hill in a situational role doesn’t make sense. I can’t imagine a situation where Hill would be better than Nelson. The question to answer is what will better prepare Hill to be the starter in 2013: redshirt or play sparingly.
Junior Jason Munns will also be available a year from now. He hasn’t taken a live snap in a Cougar jersey, but has significantly more time in the system than anyone else.
Also on the roster this year is Alex Kuresa. He redshirted in 2011 and plans to leave on a mission following the 2012 season.