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2008 Blue Ribbon Preview: BYU

Blue Ribbon which is an amazing magazine is previewing all of the Mountain West teams, so here is their preview.

COACH AND PROGRAM

A coach labeling an upcoming season a “Quest for Perfection” might strike some as a brash, presumptive or even arrogant. For BYU that quest is a logical extension of what the team has accomplished the last two seasons.

BYU enters 2008 with a 10-game winning streak, the nation’s longest. The Cougars have won 16 consecutive MWC games and finished the last two seasons ranked among the nation’s top 15 teams.

With Utah and more recently Boise State and Hawaii having crashed the BCS party, there is increased interest in non-BCS teams capable of competing with the game’s elite, and BYU tops the list of teams to watch this season. Coach Bronco Mendenhall has nearly returned the Cougars to the glory of LaVell Edwards’ heyday — don’t forget BYU won the national title in 1984 — and the program could be poised to make a splash on the national stage.

The Cougars have long been known for their high-powered offense, and the 2008 team may have as much talent as its most decorated predecessors. BYU returns 10 starters, six of whom were either first- or second-team all-conference players, from an offense that led the MWC in scoring (30.1), passing (298 ypg) and total offense (442 ypg).

BYU will return just three starters from a unit that led the MWC in total defense (307 ypg) in 2008, but until proven otherwise, it’s best to assume the Cougars will reload.

That the Cougars have arrived in such a lofty position just four years after Mendenhall’s arrival is testament to the job he has done. When Mendenhall took over in 2005, he inherited a program coming off three consecutive losing seasons, something that hadn’t happened since the 1960s.

After going 6-6 in 2005, his first season, Mendenhall has returned the Cougars to dominance. If there were any questions about whether Mendenhall would be able to lead BYU on a sustained run of excellence, they were answered last season. The Cougars graduated one of the most prolific quarterbacks in school history (John Beck), their all-time leading rusher (Curtis Brown), and four of their top five receivers and hardly missed a beat in 2007.

After losing consecutive games to UCLA and Tulsa in mid-September, the Cougars closed the season with a 10-game winning streak, capped by a dramatic 17-16 win against the Bruins in the Las Vegas Bowl that was clinched by a blocked 28-yard field goal as time expired.

The Cougars won MWC games by an average of 14.8 points, despite close calls against New Mexico and Utah. BYU’s 11-2 record gave it consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since 1990-91.

The MWC is entering its 10th season and BYU has been the dominant team in the league’s first decade, capturing four titles and going undefeated in conference play three times. Under Mendenhall’s guidance, there is little reason to believe BYU’s grip on league superiority is going to lessen in 2008, but the Cougars dreams this season go beyond a conference title.

“We’re not satisfied with being 11-2,” defensive end Jan Jorgensen said. “There are a lot of teams out there that would love to be 11-2. We’ve been good the last two seasons, and now we’re looking to be great. Anybody who wants to be great will never be satisfied with being 11-2.”

The Cougars were close to great last season, but contributed to their own demise in the losses to UCLA and Tulsa. BYU controlled its 27-17 regular-season loss to UCLA, out-gaining the then-16th ranked Bruins 435 yards to 236. The loss snapped an 11-game winning streak and three turnovers were largely responsible. UCLA returned an interception 56 yards for a touchdown and had three other scoring drives that were 47 yards or less.

A week later, perhaps still suffering a hangover from the loss to UCLA, BYU’s otherwise superb defense was decimated in a 55-47 loss to Tulsa. The Golden Hurricanes were a potent team, but BYU surrendered 537 yards of offense and allowed at least 10 points in every quarter. The Cougars didn’t allow another opponent more than 366 yards and never gave up more than 27 points all season.

The MWC’s leader in total defense (307 ypg) rebounded the following week in a 31-6 pasting of Air Force and never looked back.

The Cougars have won 21 of their last 23 games, but now they want to win the next 12, an accomplishment that would make BYU as relevant on the national scene as it has been since the 1984 national title.

Potential trouble in the “Quest for Perfection” is relatively easy to spot. The Cougars play what should be their two toughest conference foes — TCU and Utah on the road — and they have to travel to Seattle for a game against what should be an improved Washington team the second week of the season.

BYU will play its third game in 370 days against UCLA at home the week after playing the Huskies. If the Cougars survive back-to-back games against Pac-10 opponents, expect an onslaught of national media attention, because victories in those two games, coupled with what should be a top 20 preseason ranking, could thrust BYU into the role as (very) long-shot candidate to play in the BCS title game.

The likelihood of that happening is slim, but BYU should be better positioned than Utah, Boise State or Hawaii were. If the Cougars are undefeated, their regular season finale against rival Utah would rivet the entire state. BYU has beaten the Utes with scores in the final minute each of the last two seasons.

QUARTERBACKS

In the 1980s BYU produced a run of quarterbacks that included Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and, in the latter half of the decade, Ty Detmer. The Cougars may be in the midst of another stretch of sublime quarterback play.

Inside the Mountain West



After John Beck graduated and took his talent to the NFL, it seemed reasonable to wonder how the Cougars would effectively replace their second all-time leading passer, but those concerns didn’t last long. Junior Max Hall (6-1, 201) earned the job last spring and was the MWC’s best quarterback from the opening snap of the season.

Hall, who sat out his freshman season in 2006 after transferring from Arizona State, went 26-for-39 for 288 yards in the opener against Arizona and never looked back. When BYU beat UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl, Hall wrapped the most prolific passing season by a sophomore in MWC history.

He finished the year 298-of-496 for 3,848 yards and 26 touchdowns. Hall threw for more than 300 yards five times and only three quarterbacks in BYU history have thrown for more yards in their first 13 games. A first team all-conference selection, Hall protected the ball much better as the season progressed.

After throwing a career high three interceptions in a lackluster 24-14 win against UNLV, Hall threw just four interceptions over the last seven games, a stretch that included 242 passes.

If BYU has the type of season it’s dreaming of and Hall takes the expected step forward, he could emerge a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, because there is little doubt he will produce big numbers. Hall’s play in the spring did little to deter expectations for a monster season.

“He is the best we have had in four years and that is not a knock on John Beck,” quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman told the Salt Lake Tribune. “That is just where the program is and where the offense is and he has performed better than any quarterback has performed in spring yet.” The biggest uncertainty at quarterback is who will be Hall’s primary backup, an eventuality Cougar fans don’t want to face. Junior Brendan Gaskins (6-4, 215) is the most likely candidate should something happen to Hall. Gaskins, a JUCO transfer, played in six games and complete 2-of-5 passes for 31 yards.

Also competing for time will be sophomore Kurt McEuen (6-2, 213) and freshman Stephen Covey (5-11, 177), a backup defensive back who redshirted in 2005 before leaving on a two-year Mormon mission.

BYU’s quarterback of the future may still be a few months away from campus. Riley Nelson, a 2005 Parade All-American who played his freshman season at Utah State, plans on transferring to BYU when he returns from a LDS mission in Spain. He’s scheduled to return in March.

RUNNING BACKS

Much like quarterback, BYU entered 2007 trying to fill a gaping hole — the graduation of all-time leading rusher Curtis Brown — and it didn’t take long to find a suitable replacement.

Sophomore Harvey Unga (6-0, 243), who red-shirted in 2006 because of a hip injury, had one of the best seasons by a running back in BYU history. Unga rushed for 1,227 yards and 13 touchdowns on 244 carries, earning second team all-conference honors. He also caught 44 passes for 655 yards and four touchdowns, numbers that made him the MWC’s leading freshman receiver.

Unga’s rushing total was a MWC freshman record and he set the MWC record for all-purpose yards (1,840). He surpassed 100 yards seven times, including a career high 177 yards against UNLV. Unga is more battering ram than bullet — his longest run from scrimmage was 44 yards — but he has good vision and is a load to bring down.

The Cougars backfield depth took a hit when senior Manase Tonga (6-0, 238) was ruled academically ineligible, but Unga will have support. Senior Fui Vakapuna (6-1, 245) will probably inherit Tonga’s carries. Vakapuna scored 11 touchdowns in 2006 on just 103 touches, but he was slowed by a broken hand and ankle injuries last season, limiting him to just 252 yards on 73 carries.

If Vakapuna is healthy, expect much greater production. Freshman J.J. DiLuigi (5-9, 196) and junior Wayne Latu (6-0, 222) enjoyed good springs and will compete for time as well. Latu played in seven games last season, gaining 35 yards on 12 carries.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

If the presence of Hall and Unga weren’t enough to give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares, the Cougars have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver, led by junior Austin Collie (6-2, 206), who returned from a LDS mission last year to catch 56 passes for 946 yards and seven touchdowns, tops in the conference. A second team All-MWC and Academic All-MWC selection and the Las Vegas Bowl MVP, Collie should be even better as a junior.

Collie’s consistency was impressive last season. He piled up six 100-yard games, including four straight.

He worked in the offseason to improve his timing with Hall. Two years removed from the mission, Collie, whose father and brother played football for BYU, should be poised for a monster season.

Starting opposite Collie will be senior Michael Reed (6-1, 202). In his first season as a starter Reed caught 41 passes for 449 yards and four touchdowns. Reed, who had a career high 132 yards receiving in the loss to Tulsa, is a dependable target.

The battle for playing time alongside and behind Collie and Reed will be fierce. Freshman Spencer Hafoa (6-0, 196) and sophomore Luke Ashworth (6-2, 194) are both returning from LDS missions and have the talent to be significant contributors. Ashworth, who served his mission in Minneapolis, Minn., played in 11-of-12 games in 2005, catching six passes for 90 yards.

Like Collie and Reed, Ashworth has good size and speed and should eventually develop into an excellent receiver. Hafoa should have a productive career as well but has more work to do reshaping his body after returning from the LDS mission.

Sophomore Tyler Kozolowski (5-9, 185) and senior Reed White (5-10, 198) both played last season but neither caught a pass.

Another name to keep in mind is freshman O’Neill Chambers (6-3, 208), a highly touted recruit out of Harmony, Fla. With BYU’s numbers at receiver, Chambers would seem unlikely to play as a freshman, but Mendenhall isn’t averse to playing freshmen and the Rivals.com three-star recruit is a talent.

Chambers, whose Harmony High School coach, Tyler Anderson, is a former Cougar, chose BYU over offers from Maryland, Purdue and South Carolina.

As good as Collie is, he isn’t BYU’s leading returning receiver, that distinction belongs to junior tight end Dennis Pitta (6-5, 250), who caught 59 passes for 813 yards and five touchdowns. A first team All-MWC selection in 2007, Pitta is a candidate for the Mackey award and is also on the Lombardi Trophy watch list. He is big target, but hardly plodding. Pitta was fifth in the nation in receptions among all tight ends, and as Hall continues to improve, it seems likely Pitta’s numbers will, too.

Behind Pitta, junior Andrew George (6-5, 246) is a more than competent reserve. George had 17 catches for 200 yards in 2007.

OFFENSIVE LINE

In addition to an all-conference quarterback, running back and wide receiver, BYU has four returning starters on the offensive line, including a pair of all-conference performers.

The Cougar line was dominant last season, clearing the way for a running game that averaged 144 yards per game and allowing just 20 sacks in 503 pass attempts.

The line is anchored by left tackle Dallas Reynolds (6-5, 332) and left guard Ray Feinga (6-5, 322), both seniors who were first team All-MWC selections last season and members of the preseason Lombardi watch list heading into 2008.

For Reynolds, who protects Hall’s blind side, his standout play in 2007 was a continuation of a stellar career. Reynolds enters 2008 having started 38 consecutive games.

Feinga’s first year as a starter was as an outstanding one. He recorded 70 knock-down blocks and didn’t allow a sack.

Sophomore Mark Freeman (6-0, 295) and freshman Manaaki Vaitai (6-3, 300) will serve as the primary reserves on the left side of the line. Freeman will play tackle and Vaitai guard. The right side of the line should be nearly as strong, though starting right guard Travis Bright (6-5, 329) is coming back from a broken tibia and fibula suffered in the Las Vegas Bowl. There was some concern that the broken bones would imperil his 2008 season, but Bright’s recovery is going well. He should be in the opening game lineup as he begins his third season as a starter. The top reserves behind Bright are freshmen Matt Reynolds (6-6, 315) and Chris Hunt (6-3, 313). Massive senior David Oswald (6-8, 325) returns as the starter at right guard. A two-time academic All-MWC selection, Oswald is a quality player who can get overshadowed by his more prominent line mates.

Junior Levi Mack (6-5, 318) will serve as Oswald’s apprentice, as he grooms for a starting role next season.

The only hole in the offensive line is at center, where former all-conference performer Sete Aulai was lost to graduation. Juniors Tom Sorenson (6-5, 306) and R.J. Willing (6-5, 312) are competing for the job. Sorenson enjoys the benefit of having been the backup last season, but Willing, a transfer from Vanderbilt, was the Commodores’ starter as a fresh-man in 2003. Willing transferred to BYU after serving his LDS mission in Albuquerque, N.M.

KICKERS

The kicking duties will probably be handled by sophomore Mitch Payne (6-2, 207). As a freshman, Payne was solid, connecting on 10-of-14 field goal attempts, but he didn’t show much range.

Payne made 9-of-10 on kicks under 40 yards, though seven of the makes came from inside the 30-yard line. Payne’s longest field goal of the season was 42 yards, and he had two kicks blocked.

If Payne’s leg strength and accuracy from beyond 40 yards don’t improve, sophomore Brian Smith (6-2, 175) will push him for time.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The defense returns only three starters, but two of them are along the line, which should be the unit’s strength. BYU didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher in the regular season, and line play was one of the primary reasons. The unit’s anchor is junior Jan Jorgensen (6-3, 260), who followed a freshman All-American season in 2006 with a 2007 season that established him as one of the nation’s best defensive ends.

Jorgensen was third on the team with 77 tackles and led the MWC in tackles for loss with 20 and 14 sacks. Jorgensen ranked 12th in the nation in tackles for loss and fifth in sacks. A Lombardi Award watch list member, Jorgensen has good quickness and a motor that is always running. Backing Jorgensen up, a thankless job, no doubt, will be senior Brock Richardson (6-2, 267) or freshman Steven Fendry (6-5, 255). Richardson played in seven games last season, though he didn’t record a tackle.

Fendry, a former Rivals.com three-star recruit, signed with Colorado as a tight end in 2006 before transferring to BYU and sitting out last season.

Junior Ian Dulan (6-1, 252) returns as the starter at right defensive end. Dulan, who played as a freshman in 2006, finished with 24 tackles, 3.5 TFL and three sacks last season, a productive campaign. But Dulan’s starting position isn’t assured because of the presence of junior Brett Denney (6-4, 252). In a reserve role last season, Denney was more productive statistically, finishing with 29 tackles, 4.5 TFL and four sacks.

No matter who starts the game, Denney and Dulan will both see significant action and should be productive. Atop the spring depth chart at nose tackle are sophomore Rick Wolfley (6-3, 243) and senior Mosese Foketi (6-0, 276). Wolfley, given that he earned more playing time in 2007, is the favorite to earn the job. He played in 10 games a season ago and made eight tackles. A junior-college transfer, Foketi redshirted in 2006 and played in eight games last season, finishing with three tackles.

Junior Tevita Hola (6-1, 310), a junior transfer from Snow (Utah) Junior College, is a newcomer who could contribute immediately. Hola enrolled in January and went through spring practice. A three-star recruit according to Rivals.com, Hola was also pursued by Oregon State, Texas A&M and Tennessee, among others.

LINEBACKERS

Mendenhall doesn’t view the graduation of players as a loss to program, choosing instead to view departure through the lens of opportunity. When one player leaves, another gets a chance. There will be plenty of opportunity for young BYU linebackers after the loss of three starters. Gone are Bryan Kehl, Kelly Poppinga and Markel Staffieri, clearing the way for a group of players Mendenhall believes are ready to make the BYU defense a stout one.

Senior David Nixon (6-3, 223), an inside linebacker, is the unit’s only returning starter, though he was an outside linebacker in 2007. Nixon, who finished with a career-high 66 tackles, including 10 for loss, has been productive from the moment he arrived on campus. Nixon played as a freshman in 2003 before serving a church mission in Ecuador. He’s never had fewer than 10 TFL in a season.

Sophomore Grant Nelson (6-3, 226), who had 22 tackles in a reserve role last season, his first after returning from a church mission to Hamburg, Germany, could serve as Nixon’s understudy, or he could move outside and nail down a starting job.

Set to start alongside David Nixon is junior Shawn Doman (6-2, 244), who had 38 tackles a year ago. Doman, who played as a freshman in 2006, is ready to assume a larger role.

Juniors Matt Ah You (5-11, 221), Matt Bauman (6-1, 226) and Dan Van Sweden (6-2, 221) will compete for playing time. Bauman, the team’s special teams MVP, had 34 tackles last season. Bauman can play inside and outside.

Junior Vic So’oto (6-3, 249), who caught 12 passes for 124 yards as a tight end last season, has moved to outside linebacker and will probably start. So’oto is very athletic, and the move to defense, and possibly to the top of the depth chart, seems to have invigorated him.

Ah You, whose father Charles played at BYU and his brother, C.J. plays for the St. Louis Rams, is returning from a church mission.

BYU’s depth at linebacker took a hit when junior Terrance Hooks (6-1, 233) tore the patella tendon in his left knee during spring practice. The injury will keep Hooks, who was competing for a starting spot, out until at least mid-September. His return and the level he is able to play at are uncertain.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The secondary will feature a bevy of new faces, but the Cougars are confident they can plug new bodies into a system that works. Gone are cornerbacks Ben Criddle and Kayle Buchanan, who combined for five interceptions and 19 pass breakups.

Juniors Scott Johnson (5-11, 185) and Brandon Howard (5-9, 165) are expected to step into their place, but the competition will be fierce. Johnson, who had 17 tackles in 2007, primarily as a special teams ace, will play the boundary corner position. He will be pushed by sophomore Brandon Bradley (6-0, 201), who returned last season after serving a mission in Brazil.

Bradley, who originally committed to Louisville, is a good athlete and should be ready to step up. Howard, a field corner, is ready for a more prominent role after recording four tackles last season. Freshman G Pittman (5-10, 183) will push for time after red-shirting last season.

At safety, seniors Kellen Fowler (5-11, 187) and David Tafuna (6-1, 216) will step into the lineup. Fowler started the final five games of last season for an injured Quinn Gooch and performed capably, finishing with 28 tackles. Tafuna missed last season with a foot injury suffered in fall camp and was held out of contact drills during the spring, but he should be ready for the start of the season.

Freshman Jordan Pendleton (6-2, 218) and sophomore Andrew Rich (6-3, 210), a transfer from Snow Junior College, will be top safety reserves. Rich had a monster year at Snow in 2007, leading the Badgers in tackles (120) and interceptions (five).

PUNTERS

Senior C.J. Santiago (6-2, 212) returns as the punter. In his first season after transferring from junior college, Santiago did some good things, pinning 21 punts inside the 20-yard line, but he averaged just 39.7 yards per punt, and his net average of 35.2 yards was eighth in the MWC. Backup place-kicker Brian Smith will push Santiago.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Collie, who averaged 25.8 yards per return, second best in the MWC, will give the Cougars a threat returning kicks. Senior Bryce Mahuika (5-9, 186), was fourth in the MWC in punt returns (6.8 yards) but BYU ranked ninth in the league overall (6.0 yards per return).

Conversely, BYU’s punt coverage teams were outstanding, allowing just 5.9 yards per return, and it was in the middle of the pack defending kick returns.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Cougars
Unit Grade
Offense A+
Special teams B
Defense B
Intangibles A

BYU enters the season a prohibitive favorite to win a third consecutive Mountain West title, but the Cougars have their sights set on a postseason destination much grander than the Las Vegas Bowl (the typical landing spot for the MWC champion).

If all goes according to plan, BYU will be monitoring BCS computer numbers and counting poll votes as the season goes along. The Cougars aren’t running from the expectations — see the Quest for Perfection — and their ambitions are realistic.

As a matter of fact, BYU might be as well positioned as any non-BCS team to compete for a national title since the Cougars won it all in 1984. The program has more national cache than Utah, Boise State or Hawaii did before their magical seasons, and it should enter the season ranked high enough to ascend in the polls.

With 10 returning starters on offense, the Cougars should make their high-scoring predecessors of yesteryear smile. BYU has star power on offense with Collie and Unga, and Hall could emerge as a legitimate Heisman candidate.

The questions are on the other side of the ball, where eight starters are gone from one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.

For critics looking to punch holes in BYU’s BCS dreams, the team’s unproven linebackers and secondary is where they will start. But Mendenhall believes he has a system in place that grooms players to succeed.

A year ago, the Cougar offense graduated nearly every significant skill position player, and yet the offense never missed a beat. It’s doubtful Mendenhall would push The Quest if he didn’t think he had the horses on defense, and his track record grants him the benefit of the doubt.

For Hawaii and Boise State, BCS anticipation built over the course of the season. For the Cougars, it will be there from outset, and the games against Washington and UCLA will go a long way toward determining their postseason fate before the third week in September ends.

The odds against any team going undefeated are long, and BYU is no different, but the potential for a magical run is in place.

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