Teammates and coaches who talked about BYU quarterback Riley Nelson on Tuesday all used the word "tough."
Tough enough, as was discovered, to play through a shoulder injury that would have put most players out of commission.
But reason finally overcame Nelson's toughness and he's been sidelined for the remainder of the 2010 season. Nelson's non-throwing (right) shoulder will require surgery and a rehabilitation of four to five months. The injury that first occurred during fall camp was re-aggravated on the third play of the Florida State game on Saturday. Nelson played one more series after that. On Monday an MRI was taken and he met with BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall on Tuesday afternoon. Nelson, Mendenhall said, couldn't lift his right arm above his waist. The consensus of the trainers and doctors was that surgery was needed immediately.
"It's never fun to be injured," Nelson said. "I'm getting it taken care of as soon as possible so I can start my recovery and be back to help the team in the future."
The end of Nelson's season means the official beginning of the Jake Heaps Era. The highly touted freshman, who has battled Nelson since spring football and shared playing time with him through the first three games, will become only the second true freshman to start at quarterback for BYU, on Saturday in LaVell Edwards Stadium against Nevada.
"This is a great opportunity for me, but it's really unfortunate what's going on," Heaps said. "It's time where I've got to step it up and help this team out the best I can. These guys are rallying around me. Me and Riley, we've been battling together and working together. I leaned on him and he leaned on me. It was an extremely healthy relationship, and I'll miss him a lot this season."
Unable to make a decision on who the No. 1 guy was to be through spring football, fall camp and the first three games of the season, Mendenhall and his coaching staff will now deal with putting their offense in the hands of a true freshman for the remainder of the season.
"We lose experience, we lose a lot of leadership and we lose another option at quarterback," Mendenhall said. "We were going to continue to play two, and shift some of the critical situations to Riley. He can't run any harder, or try any harder. There's just no way he can play anymore.
"Who knows whether he [Heaps] is prepared or not? He's a freshman playing college football. But if there's anyone who could be prepared, his experience to this point has led me to being very comfortable. I believe in his potential, it's just a matter of catching up on the experience and playing football."
Nelson, who played his freshman year at Utah State then came to BYU in 2009 after serving an LDS mission, has completed 20-of-40 passes for 205 yards and two touchdowns while adding 148 yards and one touchdown on 31 rushing attempts. He is expected to apply to the NCAA for a medical hardship at the end of season that would allow him to return to BYU as a junior for the 2011 season.
Heaps, more of conventional drop-back passer, is 30 of 60 for 260 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He played most of Saturday's 34-10 loss to Florida State, completing 15 of 31 for 114 yards and a touchdown, but he was sacked six times.
Now, much by default, he's the starting quarterback at BYU.
"That's why I came here. I didn't come here to take half of it, or to not be the guy," Heaps said. "I came here to hopefully be the guy when the time was right to lead the team. Right now, it's happened. It's been unfortunate circumstances. But I'm ready enough. The coaches have put it in my hands so they think I'm ready enough to go out there and prove I'm ready."
With Nelson out, the backup becomes sophomore James Lark, who returned from his LDS mission in December of 2009. Behind Lark is sophomore Jason Munns, who returned from a mission this summer.
"My thoughts are that I don't really change," Lark said. "Riley played great this year, and I feel bad he had to end his season this way. He's a tough guy, he'll be just fine. I've always prepared myself every game to be ready to play, no matter what. I don't plan on changing anything."
Did Lark know Nelson was hurt?
"Riley is such a tough kid, you don't hear him complain, ever," Lark said.
The injury to Nelson comes at a critical time. BYU is 1-2 after the loss to Florida State and plays Nevada in Provo on Saturday. The Wolfpack are unbeaten and coming off the program's biggest win ever, a 52-31 victory over Pac-10 favorite Cal. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had led his team to average 50 points per game so far in 2010.
It'll now be up to Heaps to drive the Cougars to keep pace.
"It's never been an issue what our offensive firepower is or what we're capable of," Heaps said. "It's just a matter of us going out there and executing, every single play. If we do that we can go out there and put 50 points up on the board every game. It's a matter of execution and how we take it into our own hands."
• Daily Herald Sports Editor Darnell Dickson can be reached at 801-344-2555 or by e-mail at email@example.com