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Provo » The three-way battle for the premier position in all of Utah college sports -- starting quarterback at BYU -- dominated the Cougars' spring football camp, which ended Saturday with an open, scrimmage-heavy practice in front of more than 7,000 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The race will get more crowded before it gets settled, too, with returning missionary Jason Munns set this summer to join the fray that already includes junior Riley Nelson, sophomore James Lark and freshman Jake Heaps.
If anything was learned this spring, however, it is that Munns will have a difficult time getting any reps at all because the trio that fought for the job this spring all showed well, according to coach Bronco Mendenhall.
"I like them all," he said, noting that Heaps is "natural, poised pocket passer," Nelson "gives you the element of mobility and grit and leadership" and Lark "is just a hair behind," not because of lack of talent, but because he hasn't played as much football lately, due to returning in December from his mission in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Mendenhall said after the first spring practice that it was highly unlikely a starter would emerge in the spring, mostly because the lack of healthy offensive linemen would limit the amount of live scrimmaging the Cougars could do, thereby not providing enough reps for each quarterback to help the coaches make an accurate assessment.
He stayed true to that prediction after Saturday's finale, saying that there was "not even a general thought" of picking a starter in April once camp began.
Midway through camp, he noted that Heaps and Nelson had pulled "slightly" ahead of Lark, and that's how the battle will look when fall camp opens in early August. The coach has said nothing to suggest that he will rotate the top two finishers to take advantage of, perhaps, Heaps' superior passing or Nelson's top-drawer running ability; by all accounts, this looks like a winner-take-all contest.
Heaps started fast and threw a prettier ball all camp, while Nelson finished a tad stronger than the others once he contained his urge to run on every down. Lark showed gradual improvement, but struggled all spring with indecisiveness and did not throw a touchdown pass the entire camp, albeit with fewer chances as the session wore on.
"I feel like my pocket presence improved," Nelson said. "I feel like my feet have calmed down a little bit, and my moving inside the pocket. I still take off running, but I feel like I've done a lot better going through my reads and checkdowns."
Heaps wasn't allowed to speak to reporters all camp, and won't be able to until after the opener against Washington on Sept. 4, per BYU rules regarding freshmen and newcomers. Teammates have been surprised by his humility, coachability and overall knowledge of the offense.
"I feel like we made a lot of strides together as a unit, and that is the pattern we are going to follow going into this summer -- that is to work together, share each other's goals, and work together to improve our weaknesses," Nelson said. "We will find ways to help each other get better. That's a special thing about this trio of quarterbacks we have here. We are all such different players, we can help each other. It is like a good marriage, where one is strong and the other is weak. They can help each other and develop into a pretty strong unit."
Questions about going with Heaps as the starter and Nelson in certain situations that call for a run-pass option have been brushed aside by not just Mendenhall, but quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman and offensive coordinator Robert Anae as well.
Their underlying sentiment: That's just not the BYU way.
Mendenhall mentioned leadership and experience almost every time the quarterback situation was broached, a factor seemingly in Nelson's favor. But he was also effusive in his praise for Heaps, saying Saturday that Heaps was "one of the brightest prospects at quarterback that I have seen" and that the early enrollee is "everything we thought he would be."
Quarterback isn't the only position unsettled after the spring go-round. Mendenhall said the tight end and middle linebacker races are even, and gave junior Steven Thomas a slight edge at free safety over a couple others in that race.