Alright Cougar fans, it’s August 28, 2012 and as of this writing we are less than 2 days away from kickoff. That means, its time to get busy with our Cougars and previewing what we expect to come from this season. The Cougars finished last season with probably one of the more lackluster 10-3 seasons in the history of collegiate football. They hope to follow it up with a similar or better record against better competition and to help them get there; they return 14 starters from a year ago, 7 on each side of the ball.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall enters his 8th season at the helm for the Cougars with a 66-24 record. His unique approach to fall camp this year will be heavily scrutinized at the onset of this season, especially if this team doesn’t perform well out of the gate. He’ll also be play-calling for a defense that should be more than dominant this season.
Offensive coordinator and QB coach Brandon Doman looks to continue improving in his new role this season and with Max Hall helping with the coaching of the QBs, he should be able to focus more on the whole offense and not just one aspect of it. With a much simpler offensive concept, this offense should be able to function properly out of the gate.
Last season, Utah State came to Provo confident and cocky and on a high from beating BYU the season before. BYU fans were certain Jake Heaps would redeem the team, but midway into the third quarter, Utah State was once again tearing BYU apart. At this point everyone had given up on the game, and given up on the season for that matter. Then the coaching staff made a change in quarterback. Jake Heaps was replaced by perennial backup Riley Nelson. Instantly there was an almost tangible change in the air. The entire team had a fire unlike anything we had seen that season. That game turned around for a win and the team only lost one other game the rest of the season.
Nelson isn’t the most talented of quarterbacks. He’s undersized and his passing skills are questionable. But what he does bring to the table is possibly more important than just about anything else. When he is the team’s leader, the team has a winning attitude. He is an incredibly confident guy and that confidence consumes everyone around him. He is a born leader, and a team captain of the 2012 squad. Playing as #13, the senior is 6’0”, 200 lbs. Last season he officially started 7 games, completed 166 of 202 passes for 1717 yards and 19 touchdowns, rushed for 392 yards and 1 touchdown, and threw 7 interceptions. He has been named to both the Davey O’Brien and Maxwell Award watch lists. He goes into this season as the undisputed starting QB. Backing him up on the depth chart is James Lark. Lark is also a senior and is 6’2” and 200 lbs. He has only seen playing time in six games and a total of sixteen downs, most of which came during blowout wins against Idaho last season and UNLV and Colorado State in 2010. With Lark being a senior and the quarterback battle for next season being led out by freshmen, we will likely see some playing time for favorite Taysom Hill in place of Lark.
Player to watch for: Nelson will get most of the snaps but watch what the coaches do with young return missionary Taysom Hill this season. He appears to be the heir-apparent to take the reigns in 2013. His progression will be vital to the program’s future success.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:
In 2011 the receivers were all that was right with the offense out of the gate. While Jake Heaps struggled to be comfortable behind and offensive line that came out woefully unprepared to live up to the “best line ever” billing Heaps was itchy in the pocket and quick to throw the ball away. To further complicate the matter, the running backs were not even close to ready. The receivers were led by redshirt freshman Ross Apo as Heaps’ favorite target but once he was replaced, sophomore Cody Hoffman showed up in a big way and led this team for the duration.
Thank your lucky stars that McKay Jacobsen is gone from this group. In steps former walk on JD Falslev. The top three spots are solid. The fight for the next group that will make up the two deep include Dylan Collie (yes, that same family), Cody Raymond, Mitch Matthews, and Terren Houk.
Player to watch for: Ross Apo needs to have a big time season this year and I expect he will have a similar season to Hoffman’s 2011 campaign.
For the tight ends, there was not much change during the offseason. The team lost three to season ending injuries last season and all are back. Richard Wilson, Marcus Mathews, Devin Mahina, Austin Holt are the names you are familiar with, but Kaneakua Friel is the man that brought us home last season after injuries decimated the position. Holt has been working hard this offseason to be a better blocker so he can be on the field more often. Word is Friel is really helping his case lately.
Player to watch for: It’s hard to determine which of the tight ends is going to emerge and be the next Chad Lewis or Dennis Pitta but I think that this year will be the year that the position resurges to the front of the offense. I’ve got my money on Holt, but who it will be is still up in the air for me.
What was great about the 2011 core of running backs is that collectively they gained more than 2100 yards on the ground. Yet, no one running back had more than 600 of those yards. It truly was a running back by committee. I think most of the guys preferred it that way. If one back wasn’t working in a game, send in another, and another, until someone worked. And sometimes it never worked, see Utah. For the fan, it wasn’t flashy to watch these guys, and they weren’t always effective, but we knew what to expect. We had the sense that if one back got injured, the running train would keep moving at the same speed.
This season, the running backs hope to upgrade the locomotive in to a bullet train. From last year’s journeymen collection of running backs, only hard-running Michael Alisa returns. Brandon Doman believes Alisa has had the best fall camp. But Doman thinks, and the general consensus is, that the rest of the cast of running backs are much faster and more athletic than last years. David Foote and Iona Pritchard look to provide the best nucleus of runners combined with Alisa. Additionally, underclassmen Zed Mendenhall, Adam Hine and Jamaal Williams have had quality camps and look to share time in the backfield. Both Bronco Mendenhall and Doman have expressed they could again use as many as 5 running backs in a committee-type system if needed. However, I’d imagine three main contributors will come in to form after the first couple of games.
Why? Through Doman’s intense study of his offense, he has chosen to alter the number of offensive formations, enabling him to run the majority of the offense through a more limited number of sets. He feels this keep defenses more honest in their set-ups and not stacking certain areas depending on the setup of the offense. I think this will create a greater need for more north-south, between-the-tackles running, with a fullback look (presumably Pritchard), but with guys that can catch out of the back field and protect Riley Nelson when needed. My guess would be to look for Alisa and Pritchard seeing the primary time, Foote, Mendenhall and possible JD Falslev in 3rd situations, with Hine and Williams working in other situational plays.
Player to watch for: The obvious choice would be Michael Alisa, but watch for true freshman Jamaal Williams (he’s only 17 still) to make an impact on this season.
BYU has always boasted a very large and heavy offensive line, however, this year that is not the case, as they slim down and focus on overall health, athleticism, and mobility. Could the slim down be due to the changing offensive schemes? Is the line going to be expected to move out of the pocket and down field as Nelson is scampering around or even Taysom Hill running some wild cat? Whatever the reason for the slim down, the BYU linemen are in shape and ready to perform. In 2011 BYU was projected to have one of the best offensive lines in the nation and unfortunately underperformed. This year they are poised to have the same accolades.
Projected starters: Braden Hansen- 6’6” 307 lbs. left guard. Hansen has received lots of preseason recognition and is on the Outland trophy for the nation’s top interior lineman, and the Lombardi trophy watch list given to the nation’s top linemen or linebacker.
Braden Brown- 6’6” 300 lbs right tackle. Converted from tight end in 2009 Brown is long quick and athletic and a nightmare for defensive ends.
Ryker Matthews- 6’6” 292 lbs left tackle. Ryker’s foot surgery last season derailed him and he was unable to play all season. This year he is healthy and ready to perform as a solid member of the offensive line.
Houston Reynolds 6-2, 305 pounds, Blair Tushaus 6-2, 270 center. This position battle has been ongoing all of fall camp. The decision of the starter should be made shortly but rumors out of camp is that its going to be very close as both centers bring different strengths to the offense.
Brock Stringham 6-6, 290, Famika Anae 6-6, 312 right guard. This is another ongoing offensive line battle coming out of fall camp. As with the other battle look for rotations and fresh legs coming in on offense as it looks to be deep in most positions this year.
Player to watch for: Ryker Mathews will be the guy all fans will be watching. Can he stand in for departed Matt Reynolds and hold down that line. With Riley Nelson being a lefty, this position is not as “glorified” as it is on most teams, but Mathews is the big name recruit that came to BYU to anchor this blind side for years to come.
The defensive line in 2012 will have some very solid talent to show on the field but not a lot of depth behind it. Expect a four man rotation mainly of Russell Tialavea, Romney Fuga, Ethyn Manumaleuna, and Ian Dulan. You should see a lot of Bronson Kaufusi making some noise there as well. Dulan has been dealing with some back issues this fall camp and is expected to miss the season opener, but Bronco is confident he’ll return this season.
Player to watch for: His name seems to be everywhere, but I really like Ziggy Ansah making some noise on the line. He’s lightning quick and can create havoc when given the chance. Its likely you’ll only see him in nickel packages and in obvious passing downs or occasionally as a back up to weak side LB Kyle Van Noy, but don’t expect a lot from Ziggy. If he is as good as advertised though, he’ll make it so the coaches have to play him. Hope for that Cougar fans because it would be a great thing if he plays a lot.
The Cougar linebackers are arguably the strongest unit on the team. They’re probably strong enough to field their own LB unit as well as 4 opposing teams starting units (See Idaho, NMSU, Weber St, Hawaii). Back are Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kavienga. Adding to the talent are Oregon State transfer Devin Unga and the blessed athlete Ziggy Ansah. Beyond that, supporting cast members include Alani Fua, Spencer Hadley and Freshman Butch Pau’u.
In 2011, the linebackers were already the most active group on the defense. They were the catalyst in creating havoc for opposing offenses. They’ll be asked to anchor the defense again. The biggest question to raise with the linebackers is how will they fare against a passing heavy team with speed? We may get that answer week 1 against Washington State. Another small issue would be can the defense contain the run without committing 8 guys to the box (see Utah). The linebackers are better against the run, but they’ll need to cover the 2-deep as well (see WSU, Boise St.). If they can hold their own on the throwing side, teams will be further hindered as to how they might move the football and score against the Cougars defense. I’m expecting great things from the entire crew of linebackers.
Player to watch for: So much talent in this group, but if you want someone off the radar to make some noise, look for Alani Fua at the sam position. He’s had a great fall camp pushing Spencer Hadley for the starting position. It’s still Hadley’s, but Fua will see time early and often.
If there is any unit that BYU faithful dread talking about yearly, it’s the secondary. It’s never been a strength and therefore, it seems BYU doesn’t put as much stock in to building the unit. However, we have seen glimpses of a strengthening secondary over the past few seasons. Secondary Coach Nick Howell and Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall think this could be the best is yet to come for this unit. Bronco has been quoted as saying this unit is the “best we’ve had athletically.” Presumed starting corner Preston Hadley agrees.
“People think that the secondary at BYU is always the team’s biggest weakness. Well, I think this year we definitely have the ability to change that mindset. … We have a lot of depth and talent, and we believe we can hold our own just like any other position group on the field, if not be the best group.”
He’s right, loads of depth which will make interchanging personal more seamless during the season. Major pieces gone is Corby Eason and Travis Uale. But stepping in to the leadership roles are known, experienced athletes. Daniel Sorenson and Joe Sampson at the safeties, with suitable 2nd stringers Mike Hague and Craig Bills. At corner, Jordan Johnson and the aforementioned Preston Hadley, with DeQuan Everett and Adam Hogan backing them up. Say what you will about these players, that they’re inexperienced, not as fast, strong or tall to compete with D1 receivers. You can’t say they’re weak. They’ll be very athletic. Secondary Coach Nick Howell said recently,
“We are going to fly around, make plays. We won’t back down to anyone, I can guarantee you that.”
Whether they can turn that athleticism in to island stops on the wings remains to be seen. What also remains to be seen is how much support they may receive from the linebacker unit. Will they be forced to play a bunch of 1 on 1’s? It will be a difficult chore to carry that load all game long.
Player to watch: Testicular cancer-beater Robbie Buckner. Although he missed all of spring and most of fall camps due to treatments, all hid did was suit up and intercept 2 passes in his first 2 practices. We’ll see him later on when he gets up to speed, but we know he’s a proven commodity in the secondary already.
Special Teams: Special teams should be an area of little concern and great strength this year, except that kicker Justin Sorensen has a sore back that doctors are telling him to lay off of for the season. Bronco seems certain that he will kick in 2012. We’ll see.
Waiting to cover for him is punter Riley Stephenson. He kicked in high school but hasn’t done it in a long time regularly. And word out of camp is that freshman QB transfer Taysom Hill has been kicking as well. We’ll see if any trickeration comes of it.
As for his punting duties, Stephenson will pick up where he left off in the Armed Forces Bowl and keep booming punts where they need to be.
Moving to the return duties, Cody Hoffman and JD Falslev are set to reprise their roles as kick returner and punt returner, respectively. And with each man returning a kick to the house last season, expectations will be there from fans for a repeat performance.
If the Cougars can find someone to adequately handle the place kicking duties, special teams is primed for another strong showing in 2012.
Player to watch for: This is always the tough one. You know what you have with the kicker, punter, and the two main return guys. I really like one of them to bring yet another kick back this season, but I think the guy that will most impress from this group will be Riley Stephenson.
BYU will roll through the games it should with ease: Weber State, Hawaii, Idaho, San Jose State, and New Mexico State. That will get the team to 5 wins.
The second tier of the schedule includes Washington State, Utah State, and Oregon State. I expect the Cougars will win all three of these games but all three of them could present the Cougars with a challenge and I expect the defense may have to keep them in the game until the offense can get it done in at least one of these games. 8 wins.
The top tier of the games this season are the four big road games: Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech. BYU will be amped and ready for Utah and while I expect a win, Kyle Wittingham’s boys will also come ready to play. If BYU had the same situation (save the venue) that Boise State has going into this game, I’d give this game to BYU without thinking. They play at home, in the afternoon, against Miami of Ohio while BYU gets to play the rivalry game five days before. This will be slug fest and I think BYU will have to make some big plays to get a win. Notre Dame will just be an overwhelming situation for the Cougars and while I think it will be an entertaining game, realistically, at this preseason point, I don’t know the Cougars will be able to handle the atmosphere. Finally, the Georgia Tech game presents a problem. While BYU is no stranger to the option offense, it has been a while now since they faced a good one and travelling to South Bend one week, returning to Provo, and then heading back to Atlanta will make this a tough game indeed. I’m expecting a split in these games and hoping for perfection, but I feel best case in 3-1. My prediction is 2-2 for 10 wins heading into San Diego and the Poinsettia Bowl on December 20.
Do you agree with me?