Provo • Taking big risks has been the theme of the summer for Brigham Young University's football program, even if nobody around Provo is calling it gambling.
Conservative-as-it-gets BYU ended months of speculation Wednesday by announcing that it is leaving the relatively safe confines of the Mountain West Conference and going independent in football beginning in 2011 a bold, headline-snatching move that many college football observers around the country believe is destined to fail.
You didn't think BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall was going to stay away from the craps table metaphorically speaking as well, did you?
The coach announced last week that he, too, is going against the grain, counter to conventional football wisdom, and will use a two-quarterback system on Saturday when the Cougars open the 2010 season against Washington (5 p.m., CBS College) at LaVell Edwards Stadium. Junior Riley Nelson will get the start his first since leading Utah State against New Mexico State in 2006 but Mendenhall said freshman Jake Heaps will play, perhaps as early as the first quarter, "depending on the ebb and flow" of the game.
"In our [coaching staff] discussions, we shaped it and framed it really well to where we have seen every possible benefit or drawback to playing two quarterbacks, so I am comfortable that we have made the right decision based on the right information," Mendenhall said.
In the end, it might not matter, seeing as how the young Cougar defense seven starters are gone from the 2009 team is going against perhaps the best college quarterback in the country in an opener for the second straight year Washington's big, fast and explosive Jake Locker.
But this question has to be asked from the perspective of BYU's also young offense, which will have to surpass Locker's output if the Cougars are going to beat the Huskies for the third-straight time: Can this two-quarterback thing work?
"I am confident it is going to work, and the only reason I am confident is because of the two guys we are doing it with," said BYU quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. "I don't know that I look at it as a two-quarterback system. I am more looking at it as something that is best for the team."
Historically, few teams have made it work. A popular example making the rounds in Provo is that Florida won with Tim Tebow and Chris Leak splitting time. The reality is that Leak got the lion's share of the plays, and Tebow was occasionally inserted to run the ball or dump off a pass.
BYU coaches insist that neither Nelson nor Heaps will be used that way at least against the Huskies.
"Our personnel around the quarterback won't change much, but our personality will change some," Mendenhall said. "Again, the core offense will remain identical, but to say there won't be some nuances, or emphasis or highlights that go with each quarterback, you'll certainly see that. … But the thought that you could have two complete separate offenses being trained at the same time, with the amount of practice or lack thereof that we have in game week, that is not realistic."
Former coach LaVell Edwards said at Wednesday's news conference on football independence that a two-quarterback system never worked well for him, adding that it was particularly uneven when he tried it in 1978 with Jim McMahon and Marc Wilson. But he was careful not to criticize Mendenhall's plan.
Mendenhall "has won at least 10 games [per season] for what, four straight years?" Edwards asked. "He knows what he's doing."
So the Cougars forge on with the "Power of Two" idea, with Mendenhall reiterating all week that he may, or may not, hold to the plan the entire season.
"Certainly, it hasn't worked at other places," he said. "There is a reason teams name a starting quarterback: You have a much better chance of establishing an identity. … You have a much better chance of working on a single system in practice and getting execution at a higher level because of the repetitions, and that simply is why most do it."
Mendenhall said it probably wouldn't be his choice to play two quarterbacks in most situations. However, like Doman, he said the "maturity of the players involved" makes it a gamble worth taking.
"The support that both these guys seem to have for each other that has made it a lot easier for me to feel like that's what we need to do," Mendenhall said. "I am not guaranteeing success, but of any situation I have gone into, I was hopeful to come out with one, and every sign along the way led to 'There isn't going to be one this year, it is going to be two.' "
My only question … is how long it is going to be two? Again, I am prepared for it to be the entire year."
'Power of Two'
Seasons in which BYU started multiple quarterbacks during the past 20 years:
Year Quarterbacks Record
2006 John Beck/Jason Beck 11-2
Jason Beck got a start against USU because John Beck was injured.
2004 John Beck/Matt Berry 5-6
Coach Gary Crowton was fired after his third straight nonwinning season.
2003 Matt Berry/John Beck 4-8
Five QBs played in two or more games; Berry and Beck played in eight each
2002 Brett Engemann/Matt Berry 5-7
Lance Pendleton also played in 10 games in 2002
2000 Charlie Peterson/Brett Engemann 6-6
Brandon Doman took over late in season, earned spot for 2001
1997 Drew Miller/Kevin Feterik 6-5
Miller became first true freshman to start a game for Cougars in years
1992 John Walsh/Ryan Hancock 8-5
Injuries forced Edwards to use four different quarterbacks
Washington at BYU
P At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Kickoff • 5 p.m.
TV • CBS College Sports
Series history • Washington leads, 4-3
Last meeting • BYU 28, Washington 27 (Sept. 7, 2008)
About the Cougars • Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is gunning for the 50th win of his head coaching career. … For the first time since December of 2006, BYU will start a quarterback (Riley Nelson) who is not named Max Hall. … BYU led the nation in third-down conversion percentage (56 percent) in 2009, and averaged 35.1 points per game. … Tight end Devin Mahina is a game-time decision with a sprained ankle. All of the other players on the two-deep chart are healthy and available to play. … The Cougars will honor eight All-American quarterbacks who played under LaVell Edwards in a halftime ceremony.
About the Huskies • Senior quarterback Jake Locker is projected by many to the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL Draft and is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate. … Washington is coached by Steve Sarkisian, a former All-America quarterback at BYU who led the Cougars to a 14-1 season in 1996. … The Huskies' last trip to Provo resulted in a 35-28 loss when BYU QB Kevin Feterik threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hale with less than two minutes remaining.