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Provo • Maybe it was the way he worked to get back from midseason shoulder surgery last year, or how he volunteered to play special teams as the gunner on the punt coverage team, no less. Or was it his push-the-envelope hair length, his penchant for showing off his abdomen with cut-off T-shirts in practice, or his competitiveness in everything from pingpong matches to impromptu dancing contests?
Whatever it is that new BYU starting quarterback Riley Nelson has said or done, it is working. Simply, the Cougars are playing harder and better since Nelson took the reins from struggling five-game starter Jake Heaps about a month ago.
On Sept. 30, with the Cougars trailing Utah State in the third quarter and the offense going nowhere, did anyone really think this BYU team had even the slightest chance of beating TCU this Friday at Dallas Cowboys Stadium (6 p.m. MDT, ESPN). Yet here the 5-2 Cougars are, the swashbuckling Nelson having led them to a streak of wins and balanced offensive production seemingly unimaginable when October began.
Sure, BYU's schedule has weakened considerably in the Nelson era, but there's a new energy, a new zip that was not there the first month of the season.
"He has a confidence about him that breeds confidence in everybody else," said BYU center Terence Brown.
For his part, Nelson will have none of the Riley-is-sparking-the-team talk, saying BYU is rolling now because the offensive line is clicking, the running game has been energized with the infusion of Mike Alisa, and the defense is close to full strength after being slowed by nagging injuries to playmaker Jordan Pendleton, and others, the first six weeks or so.
The way he has injected swagger and confidence "is nothing I focus on," Nelson said. "That's nothing I try to do. … It is definitely a good compliment that [teammates] say that, but I don't know that [it is accurate]."
Coach Bronco Mendenhall has noticed. He can't recall having a single player revitalize a team especially at the quarterback position as much as Nelson has this one.
"Max [Hall's] personality was a little unique and kinda different that way," Mendenhall said, referring to the winningest quarterback in school history. "But I am not sure that he had the same [ability to rally the team]. It is probably not fair to compare, but Max had something similar to that."
Mendenhall said Nelson endeared himself to his teammates by running downfield on kickoffs in practice as a scout team player, and by volunteering to play on the punt coverage team up to the time he was made the starting quarterback.
"He's not afraid to mix it up, and there's nothing below him. He just wants to play," Mendenhall said.
The oft-viewed clip of Nelson losing his helmet in a collision at Oregon State, but popping right up and jawing with an OSU defender, is symbolic of the moxie Nelson brings to the team, said offensive lineman Houston Reynolds.
"I think Riley is a fighter," Reynolds said. "I think above anything else when he has the ball, there's always a chance that even when things don't go right, blocks don't get made, or things don't get open that he can make something happen with his feet. It changes the way you feel about things.
"It is a great experience having him back there because you know he's going to fight, he's going to make something happen, that he's there. He's committed. When you know that guys are committed, you fight for them."
Nelson's past four games
Opponent Rush Yds Pass Yds TDs TOs
Utah St. 62 144 2 0
San Jose St. 65 219 3 2
Oregon St. 87 217 3 1
Idaho State 62 215 3 0
BYU vs. TCU
P At Arlington, Texas
Friday, 6 p.m. TV • ESPN