Allowing for the possibility that freshman Travis Wilson (already ticketed to play a specialty role) will overtake Hays in practice this week, the latest edition of Utah vs. BYU should feature two quarterbacks who took long, circuitous routes to this point, playing in a game that may certify one of them as a campus legend.
That's a long way from the BYU punt coverage team, Nelson's initial assignment in 2011, or Nebraska-Omaha, Hays' previous school, which dropped its Division II football program and made him available to Utah.
They're a lot alike overachievers, gritty competitors, guys whose teammates respond well to them and whose presence in this position once seemed unlikely, if not unimaginable.
Nelson starred for Logan High School in the 2005 Class 3A championship game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. It's taken him seven years to get back there.
"I've been exposed to a lot of different stadiums, a lot of different environments none quite like this," Nelson said. "But I'm hoping that the body of work, the culmination of those seven years, make it so that walking out on the field on Saturday, I can be nice and poised and calm."
Nelson's road began at Utah State, where he was scheduled to redshirt in 2006, before a 48-0 loss to Utah and other struggles led USU coaches to activate him. After a two-year LDS Church mission, he transferred to BYU. Nelson backed up Max Hall in '09, started three games before injuring his shoulder the following season, then was playing behind Heaps last September when he mopped up against Utah in Provo. His fumble was returned 57 yards for the Utes' last touchdown in a 54-10 victory.
Two weeks later, Nelson earned the starting job with his second-half rally against Utah State, topped by a miraculous touchdown pass. Davis deflected a ball that went over his head and into the arms of BYU's Marcus Mathews. In December, Heaps transferred to Kansas.
Hays threw one incompletion against BYU last year, when Wynn was temporarily sidelined in the second quarter. By halftime of Utah's next game, Wynn was lost for the season. Hays took over and, after some struggles, led Utah to six victories, including a dramatic Sun Bowl win over Georgia Tech.
Even so, Hays was expected to resume his original role this season, with Wynn presumably healthy. Hays was an afterthought during spring practice, while Wynn received extra work and so did Wilson and freshman Chase Hansen (who later had shoulder surgery in August).
The coaches promised Hays he could compete in preseason practice, and he responded. So when Davis' hit on a blitz knocked Wynn out of the game Friday, Hays was ready. His TD pass tied the game, before Davis' coverage forced an incompletion on Hays' final attempt in overtime.
Hays describes himself as "miles" ahead of last season, when he initially was forced into action. Wynn said Hays is "vastly better, throwing the football and just handling the offense."
What would a victory Saturday mean to Nelson or Hays?
Nelson immediately would rise from journeyman status to a member of BYU's quarterbacking elite. Since the BYU passing era began in 1972, of the 18 quarterbacks who started 10-plus games, four never beat Utah: John Walsh, Matt Berry, Bret Engemann and Heaps. Kevin Feterik is the only starter who lost to the Utes as a senior.
Hays has as much to gain. He could give his team hope in a season that's trending toward disastrous, with the Utes' next four games including trips to Arizona State, UCLA and Oregon State, mixed in with a visit from No. 2 USC.
Yes, that sets up Jon Hays vs. Matt Barkley, USC's Heisman Trophy front-runner. That's even weirder than Jon Hays vs. Riley Nelson a matchup created by Will Davis, who's becoming one of the most influential people in Utah sports.
Career stats for BYU's Riley Nelson, Utah's Jon Hays
Player Yrs. Comp. Att. Pct. Yds. TD Int. Record*
Nelson 2009-12 186 317 .586 2,550 25 9 9-3
Hays 2011-12 132 240 .550 1,613 13 8 6-3