Head athletic trainer Kevin Morris was a bit more tentative than Mendenhall or Nelson, saying he wants to see Nelson continue to progress and perform some tasks such as weightlifting to make sure he's totally ready.
"I still think we want to see some things, but the way he is progressing, I think it looks really good [that Nelson will play]," Morris said.
The training staff has ordered a "custom-made shirt" to give Nelson's chest and lungs some protection and it will be delivered to Hawaii by Saturday. Asked if he could play today if he had to, Nelson said, "with some injections and medicine, yeah, I think so."
Mendenhall said Cougar coaches "are practicing [Nelson] like he's the starter. Jake [Heaps] is still getting plenty of work, but if Riley is able to play, we will play him."
Nelson acknowledged he's not 100 percent healthy, but said that doesn't bother him.
"Not quite, but at this point in the season, this is game 12, I don't think anyone is. So I am no better [off] than anyone else," Nelson said. "Guys on our defense are playing at 70 [percent] right now, but they don't tell anybody."
Thin at tight end
The Cougars have lost three tight ends to season-ending injuries Austin Holt, Devin Mahina and Richard Wilson so they are naturally thin at the position, but Mendenhall said they should be OK this weekend barring another setback.
"Kaneakua Friel will take the majority of the share of regular tight end [reps]," he said. "Marcus Mathews will take the majority of the flex tight end reps."
Morris said the bye week gave the Cougars a chance to heal up and that Nelson's injury is the only significant one that could keep someone from playing. He said offensive lineman Houston Reynolds (torn labrum) has been practicing and will play. … Mendenhall said he's followed the Conference USA race a little bit to get an idea which C-USA team the Cougars will face in the bowl game, but said he doesn't have a preference which team that is. … The Cougars will practice in Provo again Wednesday, then board a flight for Hawaii early Wednesday evening.