Can BYU produce their fifth straight 10+ win season in 2010? Or does the youth of the Cougars get the best of BYU this year, and they take a step back as one of the MWC's best?
When a school loses its winningest Quarterback in school history, the school's all-time leading Running Back in career rushing yards, and one of the programs best Tight End tandems, many would assume there would be a significant drop-off the following year in production. But that's not how things go in Cougar Town, where Offense is always expected amongst Cougar fans to execute at a high level.
The talk through one week in Fall Camp, continues to be the Quarterback controversy. But as the practices go by it looks more clearer than ever that Jake Heaps is going to be under center for that first offensive series against Washington on September 4th.
Heaps has thrown for nearly 300 more yards than Riley in the first week of practices. Nelson makes up for some of those yards with his rushing, but still the Cougar offense moves more consistently down the field with Heaps on the field. And that was how I strongly felt after watching the Saturday scrimmage. Heaps is a natural out there and he gives his receivers passes that allow them to make plays in full stride. I think the QB derby is all but over as far as I'm concerned. Its Heaps' job to lose at this point.
With Heaps as the starter, still would like to see BYU incorporate Nelson in packages. Similar to what Florida did in 2006 with Chris Leak and true Freshman Tim Tebow. BYU tends to be too prideful to ever fathom the thought of having one of their Quarterbacks run out of the pocket. With the running abilities of Nelson, Offensive Coordinator Robert Anae would be foolish to not use him.
Regardless of who lines up at QB for BYU, that guy will have one of the nation's best Offensive Lines protecting them.
Left Tackle Matt Reynolds is one of the nation's top Offensive Line prospects for the 2011 NFL Draft. Reynolds who is only a Junior is likely to leave after this season. He's served a mission and has redshirted in his time at BYU so he is of course older than many of the other Draft prospects.
Along with Reynolds is a star studded unit that really took big strides last season, despite numerous injuries to the unit. Many players saw playing time allowing for a bevy of experience going into 2010.
Coaches and fans are really excited for Right Tackle Braden Brown. Brown came to BYU as a heralded Tight End. He was an odd man out in the position with Dennis Pitta and Andrew George there. So Brown tried his hand at Fullback, didn't last there. Then last season went to Offensive Tackle, and he did a great job despite being a bit underweight for the position (265). Bulked up to 300 this off-season and only has 11% body fat. A very agile player and is ready to take his game to a new level.
The rest of the O-Line is Braden Hansen at LG who many in the program feel like he could be a future NFL player along with Reynolds and Brown. At Center, Terence Brown is switching from Right Guard to fill the vacancy left by the lone departure from last year's O-Line, RJ Willing. Then at Right Guard there is a heated battle between Nick Alletto and Jason Speredon to see who gets the final starter spot.
The Offensive Line will be opening up holes for a young and inexperienced group at Running Back, but there is a lot of talent. Each player brings a special set of talents so it's definitely going to be a Running Back by committee backfield this off-season. Not nearly the same as the past three years having a workhorse like Harvey Unga.
Junior J.J. DiLuigi looks to be the guy that is quietly emerging as the starter after one week of camp. DiLugi came to BYU with a lot of buzz out of Canyon HS in California. Petros Papadakis of Fox Sports Net coined DiLuigi as the next LaDainian Tomlinson. So needless to say, many BYU fans were thrilled about this guys talents coming to town. Hasn't nearly lived up to all the hype, but this season looks primed for a big season. DiLuigi's biggest strength is he is a great receiver out of the backfield.
Behind DiLuigi is Bryan Kariya a blue-collar Junior who had a breakout performance against Oklahoma last season in replace of the injured Harvey Unga. Kariya is a Mendenhall favorite with how Kariya knows the offense inside-and-out and how Kariya is a former walk-on. Mendenhall of course was a walk-on when he started his college career at Snow so Bronco always holds those kind of players in very high regard.
True Freshman Joshua Quezada who was an early enrollee in Spring has been solid, still adjusting to the speed of the D-1 game. Quezada has a similar build to that of Maurice Jones-Drew on the Jacksonville Jaguars. A smaller back, but massive legs, very strong, and a knack for busting loose after contact. Quezada will see reps but he has much to learn still. DiLuigi and Kariya will be the key cogs this year in the backfield.
At Tight End or as BYU likes to call them "Inside Receivers"; there is no shortage of talent to try and replace Dennis Pitta and Andrew George. BYU has seven players right now at TE. Four of those seven very well could end up the starter and wouldn't be shocked if they become an All-MWC performer in Year 1 with how well BYU always utilizes the Tight End position.
Mike Muehlmann looks to have the inside track because he was around the program last year, and had this past spring under his belt. But highly touted recruit Devin Mahina who came back from a mission is not far off from Muehlmann. Mahina has the best hands in the unit. Then Austin Holt who was one of the nation's top TE recruits in the class of 2008 is back from a mission where he served in St. Louis, Missouri. Holt is in the build of a Dennis Pitta, but he's still gaining his "mission legs" back. Then Richard Wilson who coaches have switched a few times between TE and LB; Wilson is set on staying at TE.
With the "Outside Receivers" or Wide Receivers, this is arguably the most talented WR unit in the program's history. Headlined by O'Neill Chambers who is due to have a big year. Chambers came into BYU making some waves with some of his comments as a Freshman saying there is no talent right now and he should start right away. Needless to say, it's been a bit tougher for O'Neill than he envisioned. He's matured and looks ready to take his game to another level. Which BYU is going to need in order to be successful this season.
Along with Chambers, Junior McKay Jacobson is back and with a full year now back in the program looks primed for a great year. BYU is leaning in the direction of bringing back the slot receiver something the program hasn't seen since 2006. McKay looks to fill that spot very well as he is great out in the open field, and is sure handed across the middle.
Other receivers include Senior Luke Ashworth, Senior Spencer Hafoka, redshirt Freshman Cody Hoffman, and true Freshman Ross Apo. All of which are expected to see a lot of time this season.
Last year's BYU defense had some really bright moments, then other games were some awfully bad lows. That group did a lot with limited personnel. This year expects to be a group that has a lot more talent but like the offense, it's a very young group.
For years, Cornerback has always been kryptonite at BYU. Never able to maintain depth due to either injuries, off-the-field issues, or other problems; it's the most cursed position in Cougar Town you could say. This year however it appears to be a strength. Led by Seniors Brandon Bradley and Brian Logan.
Logan and Bradley combined for three interceptions last year and 19 PBU's. The quality depth at the position is another pleasant surprise to Cougar fans. Corby Eason, Robbie Buckner, and JC transfer DeQuan Everett give BYU options if anything happens to Logan or Bradley who is battling lingering tendinitis in his knee from a injury that he suffered back in 2006 as a Freshman.
Cornerbacks are a strength but there is still some question marks in the defensive backfield; particularly at Free Safety. All-MWC pick Andrew Rich anchors the Strong Safety spot, and is a leader of the team but alongside him there is some question marks at Free. Steven Thomas, and walk-on Travis Uale are the guys vying for the job. No one has etched their place as a lockdown starter yet and they've had spring, summer, and now Fall camp to get it.
The Linebackers at BYU this year are athletic and talented across the board. A knock on BYU has always been its lack of speed. Speed won't be an issue with this group.
Junior Jordan Pendleton who I consider BYU's version of "The Boz" (Brian Bosworth from Oklahoma in 80s) with his Mohawk, bold personality, and his knack for causing havoc in opposing backfields. Pendleton sounds motivated after being snubbed for Pre-Season MWC honors. He's ready to prove everyone that he is one of the league's premiere defensive players.
Along with Pendleton, watch for Weakside Linebacker Kyle Van Noy who is only a True Freshman to see significant time. Van Noy who greyshirted last season due to some off-the-field issues has recommitted his focus to the game and looks primed to make him and Pendleton one of the school's best OLB tandems ever.
BYU is still waiting on a NCAA ruling on USC transfer Uona Kaveinga if he could play this season or not. If so, that would be a big upgrade to the unit. But many are not banking on it.
In the middle, Brandon Ogletree and Shane Hunter are two solid players who will be tackling machines. Ogletree a Sophomore from Texas reminds many Cougar fans of another Cougar MLB from yesteryear, Shay Muirbrook. Muirbrook of course was a star on the 1996 BYU team that went on to go 14-1 and finish #5 in the national polls. Muirbrook was the MVP of the Cotton Bowl that year against K-State.
Other names to watch at Linebacker include walk-on Jameson Frazier who is turning heads in camp with his impressive play and also middle linebacker Austen Jorgensen who returned from a mission. Jorgensen could end up taking over for Shane Hunter at Buck Linebacker.
Defensive Line saw losses to two star Defensive Ends including the MWC's all-time sack leader in Jan Jorgensen.
The projected starting lineup at D-Line looks to be 6th year Senior Vic So'oto at RE where Jorgensen played. So'oto hasn't had the career many envisioned but he has continued to be a team guy and has evolved as a team leader. So'oto has went from TE, LB and now DE; has battled numerous injuries, and some off-the-field issues. Hopefully Vic can go out with a bang in his career at BYU. He is having a solid Fall.
At the other End, it looks to be Eathyn Manumaleuna. Eathyn returned from a mission this year. In his Freshman season back in 2007 he blocked the FG attempt against UCLA in the Vegas Bowl as time expired to give BYU a 17-16 win. Eathyn has switched from DT to DE.
In the middle, Junior Romney Fuga returns where he has started 18 games in his Cougar career.
Players that will see significant time still at D-Line include Thomas Bryson a redshirt-Freshman who is fully recovered from a ACL injury from last season. Then Matt Putnam who has been called "The Stork" because of his 6'8 frame a la Raiders legend Ted Hendricks.
Expect BYU's defense to be a more ball hawking group this season with the overall upgrade in speed, and overall numbers in depth.
Going into Fall Camp, Special Teams looked to be a strength at BYU. But after one week, its became a concern. Senior Mitch Payne suffered a ankle injury after a defensive back's helmet ran into Payne while attempting a Field Goal in practice. Since Payne has been gone, Riley Stephenson has been handling FG duties and it hasn't been pretty. Stephenson however is the starting Punter and there is no concerns there. But in the FG kicking department Stephenson's misses have BYU coaches scrambling for some walk-ons around town.
Needless to say, the recovery of Mitch Payne needs to be a speedy one.
At Kick Returner, looks to be McKay Jacobsen and hopefully true Freshman Drew Phillips. Phillips has been behind in Fall Camp due to an NCAA Clearinghouse issue with paperwork. Phillips a True Freshman out of Alabama set track records in the state with his lightning fast speed. But with him being behind, his immediate impact could be down the road.
Punt Returner is likely going to be O'Neill Chambers again who has promised in his BYU career he would take one back for a Touchdown. He has came close, but hasn't got one yet.
5 Players To Watch
QB Jake Heaps, Fr.
It's a cliché answer at this point, but you can't help but say you have to keep your eyes on this guy.
LT Matt Reynolds, Jr.
One of the best in the nation at his postion.
SLB Jordan Pendleton, Jr.
BYU's version of "The Boz" (Brian Bosworth) is ready to prove the Media was wrong not choosing him as an ALL-MWC performer.
WR O'Neill Chambers, Jr.
Chambers is ready to back up his words in 2010; now as a leader of the offense.
SS Andrew Rich Sr.
A former walk-on Rich became a star last year with his hard hitting abilities. He's a team leader, and one of the best Safeties in the MWC.
Best Case Scenario
The Best Case Scenario for this BYU team would be a record of 9-3 or 10-2 and then a bowl win led by Jake Heaps at Quarterback. With potentially 50 players either Freshman or Sophomore likely to be on the travel roster, getting a nine or 10-win campaign in 2010 would lay the ground work for some big seasons in the next two years.
Worst Case Scenario
The youth mixed with a tough schedule produces a 5-7 or 6-6 record. No one establishes themselves as the leader at Quarterback, and the team is inconsistent throughout the season leaving coaches with a lot of question marks still on personnel.
What Should Happen
As mentioned, there is no shortage of talent on this BYU team, but there definitely is a lot of youth. Some growing pains will definitely take place, and with a schedule that has four very talented quarterbacks in the first four weeks in Jake Locker (Washington), Tim Jefferson (AFA), Christian Ponder (FSU), and Colin Kaepernick (Nevada) there would be nothing wrong with a 2-2 or 1-3 record at that point. The schedule is very hard in the early going. But BYU will still win games in conference play, and I would say a 8-4 record this season is definitely attainable.