For the first time in a few years, spring camp won’t feature a quarterback two-deep of Riley Nelson and Jake Heaps. Rather, Nelson is the reigning starter while James Lark is now the backup.
During preparation for the Armed Forces Bowl, taking practice snaps as the backup quarterback wasn’t a new experience for Lark. After all, he was the backup most of the 2010 season after Nelson suffered a season-ending injury just three games into the schedule.
“I’m ready,” said Lark, now a senior, about rising through the depth chart. “I feel like I’ve been here forever, but I’ve been here a long time, so it’s nothing new. I’m ready to go.”
But instead of backing up Heaps like he did two seasons ago, he now backs up his old high school rival in Nelson. The two once met in the state championship game, with Nelson’s Logan High School team coming out victorious over Lark’s Pine View team. Now, however, the two are allies.
“James is a great player and a vet, and really feels good,” Nelson said not long after Lark regained the second-string position.
Nelson likened the dynamic between him and Lark to the dynamic between Pittsburg Steeler quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch, in that they’ve both been around for a while and know the routine. Batch has been called into action from time to time while Roethlisberger has been injured or suspended.
“There’s kind of not a lot that we haven’t seen,” said Nelson, “and so us working together establishing how to execute the game plan and how to manage practice, how to manage weightlifting and conditioning sessions, I think we’re a good team and we work together well.”
When discussing Heaps’ departure late last year, BYU’s coaches also gave Lark a vote of confidence.
“He’s just been in a position where he’s been third this whole time, so he hasn’t had all the volume of plays,” said quarterback coach and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. “But leading up to the first snap of the first game [of 2011], he had progressed quite a ways and is very capable, and if needed he can go in a do a very good job.”
Coach Mendenhall echoed Doman’s sentiments.
“I’m comfortable with James even though he hasn’t played in many games.”
Mendenhall noted Lark’s consistency and resolve all while not getting much in the way of any opportunities to shine.
“It hasn’t been easy, and he’s been in my office a number of times and trying to find his place and acknowledge what his path might be and what opportunities he’ll get,” said Mendenhall. “And he’s our backup quarterback and he’s very good. And [it’s] hard to predict how it will turn out, but in this particular case there’s a lot of lessons for young kids out there that it doesn’t always go perfectly, but if you just persevere and hang in there, sometimes things work in your favor.”
As Mendenhall noted, Lark is only one play away from being the starting quarterback. Two years ago, Nelson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Last season, he suffered two broken ribs and a collapsed lung, which sidelined him for a few games.
But while he gets more reps as the backup quarterback, Lark noted that there is no difference in the way he prepares, as he always strives to be prepared mentally.
“I think one of the strengths I’ve developed over the last couple years is just kind of more of a maturity to the game of football,” said Lark. “I understand it a lot more, which can help me to stay calm and kind of see what’s going on and not get frustrated and flustered.”
That preparation has evidently shown through for a while, as Mendenhall noted at the end of last year.
“I think James has been really competing, and competing well from the very beginning, and really had a great fall camp to the point where we thought that he would have a great chance to possibly even be the backup [with] the way he was competing. So this has been a breath of fresh air for him just to be considered more in the mix now to get more practice reps.”
While Lark has gotten some game reps during the past couple seasons, they have come infrequently. As someone who comes in at the end of blowouts, he hasn’t been able to put his talents on display much. Rather, he’s handed the ball off a lot.
Regarding his style of play, Lark said he is maybe right in the middle between a mobile threat like Nelson and a pocket passer like Heaps.
“I’m comfortable with both,” said Lark. “I feel I can run the ball. I’ve worked hard on improving my athleticism over the last couple years, and also throwing the ball.”