BYU Quarterback Jake Heaps Comes of Age After Tough Freshman Year
But Heaps knows all of the experiences from his freshman year -- good and bad -- helped shape the quarterback that he ultimately became by the end of the season. The Cougars won five of their last seven games, including a 52-24 win in the New Mexico Bowl and Heaps proved, despite early doubts, that he could be the leader of BYU's football team.
"In my mind, I really don't remember the first half of the season. I almost kind of like to forget that it even happened," said Heaps, who played in every game for the Cougars his first season and started 10. "I think the hardest thing was at the beginning of the season, it wasn't just me, it was both me and (quarterback) Riley (Nelson) and there were two voices instead of just one. And that's always hard to do. It's almost kind of impossible, especially as a quarterback, to try and reach a team. There were times when it was really hard. After that loss to Utah State -- I was the first quarterback to lose to Utah State in I don't know how many years -- and that was a real low point.
"We really had a point on our team where we could have let the season fall and just accept the fact that we were a losing team or we were going to do something about it and make something out of the season and we ended up really coming together and being able to finish off a strong year."
Heaps had never been in a quarterback battle the way he was with Nelson a year ago. The two were even coming out of spring ball and come fall, the two fought each other vigorously for playing time.
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said what separated the two was Nelson's leadership and experience, which was something Heaps didn't have on his resume. While Heaps was talented, he didn't command the respect of the entire team, which created a division between those who supported Nelson and those who supported Heaps.
"Riley had become pretty stable," Doman said. "He was a lot more mature and was consistent in the weight room, through conditioning, a consistent student managing affairs socially off the field at a much higher rate than Jake was; every one of them. So, all of the guys on the team didn't quite respect Jake the way they respected Riley.
"So it was something Jake was earning just through his labors and putting the time in and that's eventually what caused Riley to be named as the guy to take the first snaps in our games last year. He gained the respect of his teammates and all the guys on the team that had a voice and they thought Riley should be the guy because he was the one they trusted the most."
But when Nelson went down with a season-ending shoulder injury after the third game of the year, the team had no choice but to turn to Heaps, who in turn tried to earn the team's respect with a commitment in the weight room and a commitment to extra work on the field.
It took a couple weeks -- and a bad loss to Utah State -- but BYU's offense slowly started to take shape. With Nelson out, the offense was tailored to the strengths of Heaps instead of having different types of offense to suit Heaps passing game and Nelson's running ability.
"The reason why we were able to turn our season around in the second half of the season was because we really did not find the identity of our offense quite yet," Heaps said. "Quite honestly, we were running two different styles of offenses.
"When Riley was in, the offense was tailored to his strengths and when I was in, the offense was tailored to my strengths. So we really didn't have an identity as a group. So it made practices hard and it made it tough on our offense to really gel, to have an opportunity to work with receivers and talk to them and having to hear one voice and catch one style of pass.
"Me and Riley were pretty different on either side of the spectrum as you can be. And one way is not better than the other, it's just that we were different. So, when I took over, it took us a couple weeks to kind of get our identity as an offense, but once we figured that out and once we had established it and once the chemistry had grown in our offense, that's when you saw our offense really take off."
Heaps' breakout game came in a 55-7 rout of UNLV. In that game, he completed 61.2 percent of his passes for a career-high 294 yards and two touchdowns. From there, the Cougars went on to win three of their last four games, including beating UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.
By the end of the season, Heaps had turned into the player many hoped he would be when he signed as one of the highest profile recruits in BYU history. The success of the team made his decision to forego his LDS mission a little easier, though he admits that he weighed his options until well after the season was over.
But now Heaps and Doman are looking forward to the future of the BYU program and spring ball on March 15.
"I'm as excited as I've ever been, as a player or a coach, with the new era that's coming, going independent, the partnership with ESPN, the venues that we're going to play in and then you look at the core, the nucleus of this football team, the youth of this football team and quite frankly the talent of these young players we have in this program," Doman said.