Nelson excels in the classroom, where he has earned the honor of being an Academic All-Mountain West Conference student-athlete. Nelson, who is majoring in Spanish, has maintained a 3.24 GPA while preparing to go to medical school.
Nelson did not have a clear-cut road to being a starter but he persevered and is now at the forefront of the BYU football team. In 2009 Nelson transferred to BYU from Utah State (where he started eight games as a true freshman and served as team captain) and backed up Max Hall. Nelson started the 2010 season splitting time with true freshman Jake Heaps in a two-quarterback system but was forced to sit out after suffering a season-ending injury in the third game. After being named the backup going into the 2011 season, Nelson volunteered to play special teams as a way to contribute, displaying his team-first mentality. Midway through the season, Nelson came in as the backup quarterback and led BYU back from 24-13 to win 27-24 and started the remainder of the year. This off-season, Nelson has taken control of the team, leading team workouts and inspiring his teammates in his first season as the clear-cut starter. In the words of head coach Bronco Mendenhall, “Riley is a phenomenal young man. He is not only an outstanding football player and leader within our team but also an individual who strives to reach out and make contributions through genuine service to others in the community.”
One of 11 players in the country named to the 2010 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, Nelson is a respected leader on and off the football field with a strong desire to serve others. He has participated in many service activities to assist people in the communities in which he lives and to provide a positive example to youth specifically. He is involved with the Buff Don’t Puff program that goes to elementary schools to talk about staying in shape and avoiding smoking and drugs and other harmful activities. He volunteers his time to teach young children, including those with disabilities, as they participate in the BYU Sports Heroes Day. He also volunteers to teach youth teams football and baseball. He has volunteered with the Heart2Home Foundation to help needy families in the local community who are in need of an improved residence. He has worked in the demolition activities by taking out old cabinets and other structural parts of the home in preparation for construction workers to come in and build new parts to enhance the home for needy families. He served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints at his own expense in Spain. During this time, he not only helped people in Spain learn more about his faith but also volunteered to provide service in many ways to help those in the areas where he lived. He painted homes, built cabinets and provided meals to those in need. When an elderly couple was having trouble on their farm, he and others volunteered to construct a new barn for them. An influential speaker, Riley has had a positive impact on thousands of youth and their parents as a regular featured speaker at functions for youth. He has stressed leadership and hard work at events such as Senior Honors Day at Aspen Grove for high school seniors in Utah to Boy Scouts in Idaho to a large youth conference in Oregon. Whenever Nelson is called upon to serve or help, his response is always, “Count me in.”
Named to the Davey O’Brien Award and Maxwell Award watch lists, Nelson finished last season as a member of the Yahoo! Sports All-Independent Team, Phil Steele All-Independent First Team and FBS All-Independent Team. Nelson became a spark and a star for BYU after taking over starting quarterback duties after five games into the 2011 season, leading the Cougars to a 6-1 record as a starter. Nelson is No. 3 all-time at BYU in career QB rushing yards with 662, while finishing the 2011 season No. 16 nationally in QB rating at 152.93.