Heading into the 2002 season, junior Brett Engemann clearly had the inside track as the heir apparent signal caller for the Cougars' in the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
He delivered a spectacular performance against Syracuse in the season opener, throwing for 388 yards and three touchdowns. To top it off, he ran 40 yards and another touchdown.
Many BYU fans were ready to jump on his bandwagon and did. As Cougar fans now know, the BYU quarterback situation changed dramatically by the third game of the year at Nevada-Reno when a struggling Engemann was pulled in favor of freshman back up Lance Pendleton.
Furthermore, continuing struggles and injuries took Engemann to the sidelines and another highly touted redshirt freshman, Matt Berry, then a recently returned missionary, started the final six games of the season throwing for seven touchdowns and nine interceptions. It was not quite the stuff heroes are made of.
The Cougars closed the season with a dismal 5-7 record, the worst in 29 years. Fingers were pointing in all directions and the blame game was in full swing.
Entering this season, Berry has valuable experience as a late season starter from last year and the benefit of two spring football campaigns behind him. From all accounts, he has been working out hard on his own and wants to become "the man," joining other quarterback greats of BYU's glorious football past.
No lesser authority than head coach Gary Crowton has said Berry is the designated starter this fall. Berry has received the majority of practice reps to maximize his rate of progression. Clearly, Crowton wants to assure Berry he has the full confidence of the coaching staff to play more effectively and efficiently.
Crowton obviously does not want to repeat mistakes from last year about indecision and lack of confidence at the quarterback position. Indeed, he has seen enough of all the quarterbacks except maybe John Beck, another recently returned missionary, to conclude Berry has the most potential. Crowton's fondest hope has to be that Berry emerges as a starring quarterback until superprep phenom Ben Olson returns from his mission for the 2005 season. The ideal scenario would have Berry mentoring and preparing Olson as a back up redshirt freshman to take over the team's reigns for the 2006-2008 seasons.
The $64,000 question is whether Berry proves himself the anointed one as BYU's quarterback of its immediate future against the toughest upcoming two-year football schedule in years. Or will he go the way of Engemann? At times last year, he played brilliantly and at other times he was horrible. Will the real Matt Berry emerge this year? Time will tell. The fact remains he has to show the mental toughness to be consistently good and make great decisions in pressure situations. How he fares will be a huge key to BYU's success for the next three years.
But what happens if Berry is injured or does not perform up to expectations like Engemann last year? The back up quarterback race seems wide open as Crowton could turn to either Todd Mortensen, Pendleton or Beck.
Mortensen, a junior, is the veteran of the quarterbacks corps since he has been in Crowton's system since the 2001 season -- and saw playing time both years. At 6' 4" and 220-pounds, he brings good size and experience to the position. He has received the least amount of hype among the quarterbacks. His upside is that he is smart and plays within himself. If Berry goes down to injury or performs poorly this year, don't be surprised if he gets the opportunity to become the starter. He played very well in the Blue & White game.
Pendleton, a sophomore, played significant minutes last year in a back up role. At 6' 0" and 185 pounds, he is shorter than all the other quarterbacks, but makes up for it in quickness. His biggest strength and advantage is his elusiveness in the open field. His weakness is in the passing game. Pendleton may play a similar role in spot situations, but there is talk he may also switch to another position to take fuller advantage of his talents.
Beck, a true freshman, comes in with as much hype as Berry did after his mission. His senior year high school numbers would make any college coach drool. He threw for 42 touchdown passes with only four interceptions. He was also named MVP in a 5A Arizona football league. He doesn't have prototypical pro quarterback size at 6' 2" and 195 pounds, but by most accounts, he has the arm, competitiveness, confidence and desire to compete for the starting job.
Last season, Olson was clearly the X factor of the quarterback depth chart. This year, it appears to be Beck.
The effects of redshirting Beck on Beck:
1) If Berry is everything BYU fans and coaches hope for, Beck's eligibility would include three years in the Olson era and coaches would be far less likely to anoint Beck the quarterback of the future.
2) Berry or Mortensen would have a firmer hold on the starting position next season through game experience from this year.
3) More time to further learn the intricacies of Crowton's offense, get in better shape and have more time to focus on his studies without immediate pressure to play.
The effects of redshirting Beck on Mortensen:
1) Mortensen would clearly become the designated back up to Berry.
2) Since he poses no threat to the future playing time of Olson, the coaches would try harder to help him succeed if Berry falters or is injured.
The effects of redshirting Beck on Berry:
1) Less pressure from the only scholarship quarterback in the program no one has seen in a real college game. The coaching staff already has a good handle on the strengths other quarterbacks bring to the table.
2) Based on how well he plays, he would comfortably distance himself further from Beck in game time experience.
The effects of redshirting Beck on Olson:
1) Olson would have three simultaneous years of eligibility with Beck. Can both co-exist with one the designated back up?
The effects on Beck if he does not redshirt and gets playing time:
1) Beck will likely work harder for playing time since a year of his eligibility is on the line.
2) He will likely compete at a higher level with Berry for the starting position in future years if he gets the opportunity to play this year.
3) He is less likely to transfer if he has game experience advantages on Olson.
The effects on Mortensen if Beck gets significant playing time:
1) He is more likely to become a career back up at BYU.
The effects on Berry if Beck gets playing time:
1) Berry would feel more pressure and work harder to retain his starting role.
The effects on Olson if Beck gets more playing time:
1) Olson would come in more focused and determined to beat out Beck for the starting role.
2) He may transfer if he does not believe he can beat out Beck for the starting nod as quarterback.
The key factor is if Crowton redshirts Beck, he may lose Beck or Olson to transfer. The program may be better off in the long run by not redshirting Beck, allow him to keep pushing Berry for the starting role and leaving only two years of eligibility separation between Beck and Olson.
All bets are off if Berry has a terrific season as all Cougar fans hope for against great competition. Successful campaigns against the likes of USC and Notre Dame on the road would generate huge national hype for the Cougars this year.
Waiting for the next great quarterback at BYU takes a lot of patience. Many never panned out like Sean Covey, Paul Shoemaker, Steve Clements and Brian Vye.
Clearly, Olson will be given every opportunity to succeed since he is perhaps the most talented and the highest rated high school quarterback to ever come to Provo. Any quarterback already in the program that is anything less than great would most likely give way to Olson when the coaching staff feels Olson is ready.
The fact that BYU has solid depth again at the quarterback position is an excellent sign the program is headed in the right direction. The only question is which quarterback(s) will lead BYU back to the promise land of BCS bowl stardom?
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