PROVO — During last year's spring drills, Riley Nelson and high school All-America Jake Heaps were vying to become BYU's new starting quarterback.
The two battled during spring ball and fall camp before the Cougar coaching staff named Nelson the starter. Both QBs took snaps until Nelson went down with a season-ending shoulder injury and Heaps became the starter the rest of the way.
After experiencing growing pains, Heaps finished the season with a flourish, putting up impressive numbers and leading the Cougars to five wins in their final six games.
Spring practice opens today, and coach Bronco Mendenhall told the Deseret News that Heaps remains entrenched as the starter.
"That's where he finished last season," he said. "The way he progressed and the way our team performed under his leadership through the season is something that he's earned the rightful chance to begin the spring as our quarterback."
But Nelson, who is healthy and ready to participate in spring ball, will have a chance to compete for the job.
"Riley's recovered really well. He's exhibited the same type of leadership which I chose to recognize when I named him the starter going into last season," Mendenhall said. "He's back 100 percent in terms of how he's working out, how he's leading and how he's training and adding chemistry to this team. He's had a very good off-season. We're not allowed to have footballs out there prior to spring, so I haven't seen him throw a pass. That will be fun to have a chance to see exactly where he is now in terms of mechanics and decision-making.
"Riley, and our other quarterbacks, will have to beat Jake out now to become the starter," Mendenhall continued. "Spring is a great chance for competition. We have a number of quarterbacks that would like that spot, but Jake will begin the spring as the starter. His intent is to continue to grow and mature and perform at an even higher level than he did in the fall."
As a true freshman, Heaps started 10 games, completed 219-of-383 passes for 2,316 yards, nine interceptions and 15 touchdowns.
With new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman at the helm, how different will the Cougar offense be?
"I think it will be different, but not to the point where the fans will watch and say, 'That doesn't resemble anything like we've seen before,'" Mendenhall said. "It will be simply preserving the core of what we've done at the highest level over six years and then stimulating some progress around the outside of it that could possibly complement what we already do well.
"To say it will be a new look or a distinctive difference from every single play or how we align, I'm not going to say that. Those that watch us will see core elements of what we've done really well with wrinkles added onto that. Hopefully a continued level of execution and passion to play the game with effort that can be built upon what we've established the past six years."
NOTES: Defensive lineman Thomas Bryson and linebacker Collin Keoshian currently are not in school, but could return, Mendenhall said. Linebacker Jadon Wagner will not participate this spring, nor will defensive back Kori Gaines, who has been suspended for breaking a team rule. Linebackers Jordan Pendleton (who is recovering from surgery) and Jordan Atkinson (back injury) won't be practicing. Starting offensive linemen Matt Reynolds, Terence Brown and Braden Hansen are also being sidelined as they recover from injuries and surgeries. Safety J'ray Galeai may be held out of spring for academic issues.
Among those who have returned home from missions include placekicker Justin Sorensen, defensive back Daniel Sorensen, running back Michael Alisa, tight end Kaneakua Friel, and linebackers Spencer Hadley and Kevan Bills.
Also joining the team are Snow College junior college transfer Preston Hadley, a defensive back, and USC transfer Hebron Fangupo.
Mendenhall said a few players have changed positions: Alisa, who was a linebacker before his mission, is now a running back; Mike Hague has been switched from running back to defensive back; and Ezekial Ansah has been moved from defensive line to outside linebacker.
O'Neill Chambers, who was suspended last season, is still in school but will not play this season. He can play in 2012, if he chooses to remain at BYU, Mendenhall said. The first of BYU's 15 practices, which are closed to the public, starts today. The spring game at Edwards Stadium is scheduled for April 9 and it is open to the public.