Blue Ribbon Preview BYU

COACH AND PROGRAM

Coming off an 11-2 MWC championship season that ended with a 10-game winning streak and 38-8 rout of Oregon in the PureVision Las Vegas Bowl, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn’t believe his team reached a high as much as it did a familiar plateau.”I think it was the next step,” Mendenhall said. “Finishing 15th in the country with a decisive bowl victory, that is what BYU football is and what it always has been and what the expectations are.”

The next step for Mendenhall and the Cougars is maintaining that level of excellence, and he points to the standard set by BYU legend LaVell Edwards, who won 20 conference titles in 29 seasons and a national championship.

When Mendenhall was hired to replace Gary Crowton, multiple league titles seemed a long ways away. Crowton, who succeeded Edwards in 2001, went 12-2 in his first season, but the Cougars made the quick plunge from conference kings to also-rans. BYU had losing records in each of Crowton’s last three seasons, a streak of futility not seen in Provo since the 1965 team broke a string of six consecutive losing seasons.

BYU hired Mendenhall, who was Crowton’s defensive coordinator, and the Cougars quickly turned things around. In his first season, the Cougars finished 6-6 in 2005, losing in the Las Vegas Bowl, but laid the groundwork for the team’s 2006 success.

Despite Mendenhall’s defensive background — he never coached the offensive side of the ball as an assistant — he has restored the team’s high-powered reputation. The Cougars are again an offensive juggernaut, last season ranking fifth in the nation in scoring (36 ppg), fourth in total offense (465 ypg) and fourth in passing offense (323 ypg).

BYU was second in the MWC in scoring defense, allowing just 14.7 points per game. The combination of a potent offense and a stingy defense earned the Cougars a No. 15 ranking in the final national polls and the nation’s second longest active winning streak.

With key losses to graduation, duplicating that success in 2007 won’t be easy, but the Cougars don’t expect to slip. As one Mountain West coach said of last year’s team, the Cougars separated themselves from the pack not because of the excellence of any one player but because the team was that much better. The numbers support that contention. Only one of BYU’s eight MWC wins, a 33-31 victory at Utah in the regular season finale, was closer than 14 points.

Five first-team all-conference players graduated, including MWC Offensive Player of the Year John Beck, so that level of dominance won’t be easily repeated, but Mendenhall isn’t daunted by the challenge in front of him.

“I’m confident the players and process we have in place, regarding our recruitment, regarding the schemes we use, and regarding the type of young men we are bringing in, will make all the difference,” Mendenhall said. “[Those factors will] allow us to reload, not rebuild.”

BYU may not recreate the magic that saw Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Robbie Bosco lead the nation in total offense five times in a six-year stretch in the 1980s but Mendenhall believes his system can produce teams that annually contend for the MWC crown. With its all-American quarterback, 1,000-yard rusher and 900-yard receiver having exhausted their eligibility, the strength of the system will be tested in 2007.

“We don’t look to replace them,” Mendenhall said of the departed seniors. “We look now to allow the next players, who have been groomed and recruited to fill in and carry the program forward to a higher standard, because that’s what where we are now. All last year did was raise the expectations.”

BYU opens the season at home against Arizona, a team that beat the Cougars, 16-13, last year, before traveling to UCLA and Tulsa, both bowl teams a season ago.

Despite the challenging non-conference schedule, BYU’s efforts to defend its league title will be aided by a favorable conference schedule. After opening MWC play at New Mexico, a potentially dicey game, the schedule lightens before closing the season with TCU, Wyoming and Utah. It will be a difficult closing stretch, no doubt, but the TCU and Utah games will be in Provo. The fact the two toughest conference games are coming late in the season should give the Cougars plenty of time to gel.

QUARTERBACKS

Over the last three decades, the words BYU football and prolific passing attack have become almost synonymous. Under the tutelage of Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae, it appears that tradition will carry long into the future.

Inside the Mountain Wst

The idea that the BYU system will flourish despite the loss of outstanding personnel will sustain its biggest test at the critical quarterback position. Gone is John Beck, a second round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, who threw for 3,885 yards, 32 touchdowns and only eight interceptions as a senior.Beck, a four-year starter, etched his name alongside BYU’s quarterback legends in a career that finished with him second on the school’s career passing yards list (11,021) and third in touchdown passes (79). Beck showed dramatic improvement during Mendenhall’s tenure, developing from 56 percent passer as a sophomore to nearly 70 percent as a senior.

The competition to replace Beck was expected to be a fierce one between sophomore Max Hall (6-1, 200) and junior Cade Cooper (6-3, 205), the reigning National Junior College Player of the Year. Unfortunately, the battle for the job ended in BYU’s annual spring game when Cooper suffered a serious foot injury that will force him to miss the 2007 season. Cooper tore a major ligament in his foot, an injury considered more serious than an ACL tear, despite not being touched. The recovery time is expected to be a year.

Cooper and Hall were engaged in a tight battle for the job before the injury, but Hall will enter the fall as the unquestioned No. 1. A 2004 Arizona State signee, Hall served a Mormon mission in Des Moines, Iowa, and sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules. He hasn’t played under game conditions since his senior year at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz., in 2003. The nephew of former NFL quarterback Danny White, Hall capped off the spring going 15-of-19 for 139 yards in the spring game.

“I’m very impressed with Max’s spirit and competitive fire,” Mendenhall said. “We basically tripled the amount of work in the offseason and through the spring in team settings to [try and overcome a lack of experience]. Max, in every situation, emerged as a clear leader, competitor and performer … I think he is perfect for BYU and he’s a winner.”

With Cooper out, sophomore Brenden Gaskins (6-5, 220) will be the backup. Gaskins, who signed with Nevada out of high school, transferred to BYU after completing an LDS mission and playing at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College. Gaskins went 19-of-22 for 174 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, cementing his position.

Incoming freshman Jason Munns (6-5, 225), who starred at Southridge High School in Kennewick, Wash., and red-shirt freshman Sam Doman (6-4, 228) will compete for the third spot.

RUNNING BACKS

BYU’s reputation is that of a passing team, but it ran the ball nearly 50 percent of the time in 2006, attempting only 16 more passes (452) than runs (437). Replacing Beck won’t be easy, and neither will fill the gap left by the departure of lead running back Curtis Brown, who left as the school’s all-time leading rusher (3,193 yards). Brown capped off his career by rushing for 1,010 yards and catching a team-leading 62 passes for 566 yards, accounting for 10 total touchdowns.Fate didn’t do BYU any favors in its quest to replace Brown in the spring. Junior Fui Vakapuna (6-1, 234), Brown’s primary backup last season, missed spring practice with an injury. Vakapuna, who sat out the 2004 and 2005 seasons on an LDS mission, enjoyed a successful return to the field last season and displayed an uncanny nose for the end zone, scoring 11 touchdowns in 103 touches. He rushed for 445 yards on 92 carries, an average of 4.8 yards per carry, and scored eight touchdowns, despite being slowed late in the season by a sprained ankle. Vakapuna, a very physical runner and emotional player, also caught 11 passes for 87 yards.

Sophomore Wayne Latu (6-0, 222), who speaks three languages (English, French and Spanish), will try to work his way into the rotation after redshirting last season. Latu, who served an LDS mission in the Dominican Republic, showed flashes as a true freshman in 2004, gaining 98 yards on 16 carries.

Yet another possible running back candidate is red-shirt freshman Harvey Unga (6-0, 221), though he is coming off a serious hip injury. Unga had four carries for nine yards before suffering the injury last season. He was unable to participate in spring practice.Junior Manase Tonga (6-0, 234), who Mendenhall has called one of the team’s most consistent runners, will play fullback. Tonga had 44 carries for 197 yards in 2006 but proved to be a bigger threat as a receiver, catching 22 passes for 230 yards.

Junior Ray Hudson thinned BYU’s depth with his decision to transfer to Stephen F. Austin at the conclusion of spring practice.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Like the other skill positions, BYU lost a lot of pass catching production to graduation or LDS missions. In all, the Cougars lost four of their top five receivers off last year’s team, including freshman standout McKay Jacobson, who caught 28 passes for 547 yards, but left on a mission. But Mendenhall doesn’t want or expect sympathy.BYU coaches are confident their receivers will be on par with last year’s group. Leading the returnees are junior Michael Reed (6-1, 202) and senior Matt Allen (6-0, 177), both of whom will step into more prominent roles. Reed, who started 10 times last season, had 25 catches for 339 yards and three touchdowns. After playing a supporting role his first two seasons, he could be ready to carry a heavier load.

Like Reed, Allen has been productive each of the last two seasons, catching 21 passes in 2005 and 27 in 2006, but he hopes to deliver more. Allen flashed big-play potential, gaining 420 yards on 27 catches (15.5 ypc). He had a career high 108 yards receiving on six catches last year against Boston College, proving he is capable of posting big numbers.

Mendenhall will be expecting a more than solid performance from sophomore Austin Collie (6-2, 212). Just as LDS missions take talent from the team, it eventually gives it back, which is the case with Collie, whose brother Zac caught 26 passes for 437 yards last season before graduating. Austin, who gained 771 yards on 53 receptions as a true freshman in 2004, returned from a two-year LDS mission in the spring and should be a very prominent part of the offense. He was a second-team freshman All-American in 2004 and the MWC’s Freshman of the Year.

Junior Bryce Mahuika (5-9, 185), who caught five passes for 76 yards, will compete for one of the three starting receiver positions. Sophomore Daniel Tervort (5-11, 200) and juniors Reed White (5-11, 190) and Ryan Neeley (6-0, 176) will also compete for playing time.

The biggest loss for the Cougar receiving corps is at tight end, where Jonny Harline, who had 58 catches for 935 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2006, and Daniel Coats (22 catches, 239 yards) graduated. BYU was the only team in the nation to send two tight ends to the NFL Combine and those two leave a significant hole.

There will be a three-way battle between sophomores Andrew George (6-5, 240), Vic So’oto (6-3, 233) and Dennis Pitta (6-5, 230). Pitta, who caught 17 passes for 176 yards as a freshman in 2004 before leaving for a church mission in the Dominican Republic, is the only one of the trio with significant game experience at tight end and could emerge as the primary receiving threat.

George played 11-of-13 games in 2004, mostly on special teams, before serving a two-year mission in England. So’oto played in 11 games as a true freshman in 2005 but was forced to redshirt last season because of a season-ending injury.

So’oto’s efforts to land the starting job weren’t helped by his involvement in an offcampus skirmish that landed him and teammate Terrence Hooks in jail over Easter weekend. Water balloons were thrown at So’oto, Hooks and Hooks’ girlfriend, and when the two players kicked down a door in pursuit of the people throwing the balloons, they were arrested for burglary.

The players were ordered by Mendenhall to pay for the damage to the door, though only Hooks was officially charged. Both players were reinstated to the team for summer workouts, but Hooks will be suspended for the season-opener against Arizona.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The strength of the BYU offense will be its line, which returns four starters from a group that allowed only 15 sacks last season. The anchor of the unit is returning second team all-conference center Sete Aulai (6-0, 290). The junior allowed only one sack and recorded 108 knockdowns during the regular season.Freshman Mark Freeman (6-0, 285) will be Aulai’s understudy.

BYU also returns its starting guards — junior Travis Bright (6-5, 314) and sophomore Ray Feinga (6-5, 322) — meaning it should be very strong up the middle. A pair of freshmen — Walter Kahaialii (6-3, 273) and Rick Wolfley (6-3, 326) — will be the backup guards.

The Cougars will have to replace first-team All-MWC performer Jake Kuresa at right tackle. Junior David Oswald (6-8, 325) is Kuresa’s likely successor. Oswald, an academic All-MWC selection, made three starts in 2006 and is ready for a more prominent role.

On the left side, Dallas Reynolds (6-5, 328) returns for his third season as a starter. The junior will merit serious consideration for all-conference honors. Sophomore RJ Willing (6-5, 300) and junior Garrett Reden (6-3, 273) will provide quality depth, something the Cougars line has in abundance. Willing started nine games as a freshman in 2004 before a two-year church mission. Reden redshirted last season after serving an LDS mission in New York City.

KICKERS

The Cougars will have to find a replacement for all-conference kicker Jared McLaughlin, who was 14-of-18 on field goals, including a perfect 10-of-10 from inside 40 yards. Three of McLaughlin’s four misses — none shorter than 44 yards — came in the overtime loss to Boston College; otherwise he was nearly perfect.Redshirt freshman Mitch Payne (6-2, 201) has the unenviable task of succeeding him. Payne has some tools, though. As a senior at Weber High School in North Ogden, Utah in 2005, he set a school record with 11 field goals, including one from 53 yards and another from 54. He was a first-team all-state pick.

DEFENSIVE LINE

BYU has depth and talent returning along what should be a strong defensive line. Sophomore Jan Jorgensen (6-3, 260) is back after earning freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News. Jorgenson started every game at right end and had 34 tackles, including five for loss, five sacks and two fumble recoveries. Jorgensen, who tied for the team lead in sacks, had one sack in each of the last three games, raising expectations for the coming season.Sophomore Russell Tialavea (6-3, 300) returns after starting the final six games at nose tackle and eight overall. Tialavea had a career-best three solo tackles in the bowl win against Oregon.

Sophomore Ian Dulan (6-1, 274), who started five games and played as a true freshman in 2006, will start at left end. Dulan had seven tackles before suffering a broken leg in practice that ended his season.

Judd Anderton (6-5, 270), who had 16 tackles and two sacks, returns along with end Kyle Luekenga (6-3, 278), who had 10 tackles, to provide depth.

Sophomore Brett Denney (6-4, 251), whose brothers John and Ryan play in the NFL, will also look to carve out a more significant role behind Dulan. Junior Mosese Foketi (6-0, 270) redshirted last season after transferring from Laney (Calif.) Community College, but he should be a contributor in 2007.

LINEBACKERS

The Cougars graduated first team All-MWC linebacker and leading tackler Cameron Jensen and yet they are still making the move from the 3-3-5 defensive alignment to the more traditional 3-4 because of the strength of their linebackers.”Linebacker is the most talented position on our football team other than offensive line,” Mendenhall said.

Stepping in for Jensen in the middle will be senior Kelly Poppinga (6-2, 240), who was productive in a reserve role last season as an outside linebacker. Poppinga played in all 13 games, finishing with 36 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, two sacks and two interceptions.

Playing behind Poppinga will be the sophomore Terrance Hooks (6-1, 218), who had 18 tackles and forced a fumble as a freshman.

Sophomore Shawn Doman (6-2, 219) and senior Markell Staffieri (6-3, 232) will compete for the spot alongside Poppinga. Doman, who served a church mission in the Dominican Republic, redshirted last season. Staffieri, who was slowed by hamstring problems, played in the final eight games in 2006 and finished with 18 tackles, the least productive of his three years at BYU.

The outside linebackers, senior Bryan Kehl (6-3, 231) and junior David Nixon (6-3, 223), are the players that “make this defense go,” says Mendenhall. Kehl, third on the team with 70 tackles in 2006, returns after starting every game in 2006. He also had eight tackles for loss, three sacks and led the linebackers with six passes broken up.

Sophomore Grant Nelson (6-2, 215), who spent the last two years on a mission in Hamburg, Germany, will be Kehl’s backup.

Nixon returns as the starting strongside linebacker. Nixon was fifth on the squad with 62 tackles, including a team-leading 10.5 for loss. Nixon also had three sacks and forced a pair of fumbles after taking two years off for a mission in Ecuador.

Senior Chris Bolden (6-0, 248) played in 10 games last year after transferring in from Riverside (Calif.) Community College in 2005 and will back up Nixon. Bolden had 10 tack-les last year.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

One of the reasons for BYU’s success last season was a secondary that improved from 104th in the nation in 2005 to a respectable 65th, allowing 64 fewer yards per game through the air. With three of four starters returning, the unit should continue to improve.Senior free safety Quinn Gooch (6-0, 196) is the group’s anchor. Gooch, a second-team All-MWC selection in 2006, led the secondary with 66 tackles, in addition to intercepting two passes and forcing two fumbles. Senior Dustin Gabriel (6-1, 213), returning for his third season as a starter, will play the Katback safety spot. Gabriel had 37 tackles and he returned his only interception for a touchdown against San Diego State.

Senior Corby Hodgkiss (5-11, 206) will back up Gabriel, and senior David Tafuna (6-1, 206) is second on the depth chart behind Gabriel.

Walk-on Ben Criddle (6-0, 185) was one of the team’s biggest revelations last season. He sat out 2005 after transferring from Glendale (Ariz.) Community College and earned the starting job at boundary corner, finishing with 53 tackles, two interceptions and nine passes broken up. Criddle, who was limited by injury during spring practice, didn’t get to play in the Las Vegas Bowl because of an injury suffered in the regular season finale against Utah.

Senior Andre Saulsberry (5-10, 178) will play behind Criddle.

BYU needs someone to emerge at the field corner position. Justin Robinson, who led the team with four interceptions, completed his eligibility, leaving a hole. Senior Kayle Buchanan (6-1, 191) sits atop the spring depth chart. Buchanan, who was dogged by injuries last season and finished with just five tackles in eight games, will have to defend the spot in August practice. Sophomore Brandon Howard (5-9, 170) saw most of his action on special teams in 2006, but hopes to push Buchanan.

PUNTERS

BYU expected Mitch Payne to handle punting duties, but he didn’t prove up to the task in the spring, leaving the Cougars uncertain who their punter will be in the fall.”Our punting situation is one we are working on,” Mendenhall said. “We are still actively recruiting that spot.”

If BYU doesn’t sign a late recruit, a walk-on could win the job.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Cougars are a well-coached team, and it shows in their special teams play. BYU, which was second in the MWC in punt return average last season, will have to find new punt and kick returners. Mendenhall will have many options at his disposal, including fullback Manase Tonga.BYU’s coverage teams were very good a season ago, allowing opponents just 8.7 yards per punt return and ranking second in the MWC in kickoff coverage

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Cougars

Coming off the program’s best season since the 1996 team went 14-1 and won the Cotton Bowl, Mendenhall and Cougars seem poised for an extended run at or near the top of the MWC standings. The loss of Beck, Brown and Harline almost guarantees the offense won’t be as strong as it was a season ago, but BYU will still score its share of points.

The defense should be improved, providing some early season cover for Hall as he takes the reins of the offense. It’s hard to imagine BYU not taking a small step back with the loss of seven all-conference players, including five first-team selections, but the Cougars are a confident bunch.

BYU, clearly the league’s dominant team last season, may not be the preseason favorite, but based on Mendenhall’s track record, it wouldn’t be shocking, least of all to them, if they defend their MWC title.

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