Arms races: Can BYU afford not to start Jake Heaps?

The fall's most gripping quarterback battles. Part of the Doc's Mid-Major Week.

Typecasting. You can get all chicken-and-egg with it – has BYU been recruiting the exact same guy to play quarterback for the last 30 years, or does it just turn every guy it gets into the same quarterback? – but the fact is that no position on any other team in the country has cranked out nearly as many identical players in succession as BYU's Institute for Whitebread Pocket Passers. Since LaVell Edwards and Norm Chow made the Cougars over as a wide-open passing team in the mid-seventies, every quarterback has been an immobile, pocket-bound slinger of the highest moral fiber (with the possible exceptions of Steve Young on the former front and Jim McMahon on the latter, though even the "punky" McMahon managed to stay within the university's strict honor code until his eligibility was up).

The latest models, three-year starters John Beck (2004-06) and Max Hall (2007-09), easily led the Mountain West in yards and touchdowns six years in a row, the last five of those under Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae, a former Mike Leach assistant at Texas Tech. Beck and Hall both left with a little over 11,000 yards to their names, just back of former Heisman winner Ty Detmer on the school's all-time list. Whoever's back there will not hurt for numbers or accolades down the road.

The young gun. The operative cliché in that sentence for true freshman Jake Heaps is "down the road." Depending on who you ask, Heaps is one of the top two or three passers in a relatively weak incoming quarterback class (Rivals ranks him No. 1 among "pro style" QBs), and he emerged from spring practice as the de facto favorite among fans by virtue of not being completely overwhelmed by his first taste of the college game. Still, Heaps' potential reeks of delayed gratification, for two reasons: a) He's straight out of high school, uncharted waters for Cougar quarterbacks, and therefore entirely unpredictable despite the hype; and b) He's left the door open on leaving for his Mormon mission as early as his sophomore year.

Of course, BYU is used to players coming and going from missions. But it hasn't had to interrupt the career of a starting quarterback, mainly because it hasn't had to start a quarterback so early in his career – Beck (who took his mission before ever arriving at BYU) and Hall, like most Cougar starters, didn't move into the lineup until their return as 22-year-old underclassmen. If Heaps isn't obviously the best quarterback on the roster, it may not be worth the growing pains to burn a year of eligibility on a guy who may not be around to pay off that investment over the next two.

The wizened vet. If he can play, junior Riley Nelson is a convenient placeholder until Heaps returns: He's already served his LDS mission, using the opportunity to transfer from dismal Utah State, where he was elected a captain and started seven games as a freshman in 2006. (The switch to BYU prompted the NCAA to pass the "Riley Nelson Rule," forbidding schools from contacting a missionary in any capacity without specific approval from his previous school. At Arizona State, they call it "the Max Hall Rule.") Nelson saw a little mop-up duty last year as Hall's backup, and is the only quarterback on the roster who's taken a live college snap.

That's if he can play. At least some scouts saw Nelson as a two-star safety out of high school, and he dropped his last six starts at Utah State after debuting with an upset over Fresno State in '06. That was four years ago, but nothing on Nelson's resumé or spring performance suggests he'll be doing anything but keeping Heaps' seat warm if the coaches decide to play it conservatively with the freshman.

See also... The other contestant in the spring was sophomore James Lark, himself returning from a two-year mission after riding the bench in 2006 and 2007. It's safe to say he has quite a bit of ground to make up on Heaps and Nelson, though he is successfully rocking the obligatory buzz cut.

The smart money. Mendenhall was entirely noncommittal out of the spring, meaning Heaps and Nelson will both be expected to play. If a redshirt for Heaps is out of the question (which it is, as long as he's healthy), there's no reason to coddle or "save" him: As always, the Cougars will be back in the mix for the Mountain West championship, and won't have a reliable running game to fall back on in the wake of all-time school rushing leader Harvey Unga's controversial exit this spring. Unless Heaps turns into a total wreck in fall camp, they can't afford not to let him whet fans' appetites a bit, even if they have to wait another two years for the main course.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.