Team preview: BYU
The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 BYU Cougars, exclusively on Insider.
Bronco Mendenhall looks back at his first season as a head coach and is sometimes amazed he negotiated through the maze. Elevated from defensive coordinator to replace unpopular Gary Crowton, he was introduced for the first time to the offensive side, the overall organization side, the media side and becoming the personification of the program.
Sure, every head coach spends hours away from the team addressing boosters, alums and civic groups. At church-owned BYU, throw in countless church-related functions. The head coach at BYU also requires unique accounting skills to keep track of players serving two-year church missions around the globe.No matter how much coordinators dream of the day they make the transition to head coach, it is always a challenging adjustment at any school. Unlike his brother, Mat, and father, Paul, Mendenhall never had the chance to play for the Cougars. He grew up just north of Provo, went to Snow Junior College (a long-time BYU feeder school) and ended up playing his Division I football at Oregon State (1986-87) starting at safety and linebacker. Only 29 when he became Oregon State's defensive coordinator in 1996, Mendenhall further established himself as a defensive coordinator at New Mexico from 1998-2002. Then Crowton called on him to return "home" to restructure the defense and create an automatic story line for every BYU-New Mexico showdown.
Senior John Beck (6-2, 210) had an inauspicious start as a freshman, throwing an interception on the first pass of his career. He was forced into action by a myriad of injuries on the quarterback depth chart and his progress was slowed by a concussion. Fast forward to this season, coming off first-team All-MWC honors. He will be on the watch lists of all the major quarterback awards. Mel Kiper Jr. listed him among the top five draft prospects at his position for 2007. His completion percentage has improved from 50.3 to 56.0 to 65.5 and he was fifth nationally last season at 309.1 yards a game. He has 7,136 total yards and 47 touchdowns and is all but certain to finish his career among the greats in the BYU record book. With 26 starts going into his senior season, he has more experience than any former Cougar quarterback except 1990 Heisman winner Ty Detmer. Beck's greatest assets are his poise, quick release and mobility. He netted 61 yards on the ground and ran in for two touchdowns in '05. However, Mendenhall isn't jumping on the sports information department's bandwagon comparing Beck with the likes of old-time BYU quarterbacks. "He has poise and experience, the things that jump out at you," Mendenhall said. "But until a conference championship is earned and we are meeting the expectations we have for our program, you can't compare him to those other quarterbacks." Besides, as a defensive coach, Mendenhall isn't too involved with Beck's mechanics. "Either he completes it or he doesn't," Mendenhall said. There is little experience behind the starter. Senior Jason Beck (6-2, 207) played sparingly in '04 but did not see action last season. Returning missionaries Sam Doman (6-4, 200), a cousin of BYU quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman, and Jacob Bower (6-4, 200) will be in the freshman mix along with Max Hall (6-1, 185), who redshirted as an Arizona State freshman before going on his mission. True freshman James Lark (6-3, 205), a highly recruited prospect from St. George, Utah will also join the fray. Ironically the quarterback everyone forecast for greatness at BYU never took a snap as a Cougar. Ben Olson was one of the top rated quarterback prospects in the country when he redshirteded in 2002. He went on a mission and transferred to UCLA. "We'll try to find out early in the fall who our third-string quarterback is going to be," Brandon Doman told the Deseret News. "I'm not 100 percent sure I want to figure that out. That will be a lot of our conversation. Once we figure out who that third-string quarterback is, I'm going to let him compete with Jason [Beck] for the backup job."
In a pass-oriented offense, senior running back Curtis Brown (6-0, 205) still managed to earn first team All-MWC honors in '05, rushing for 1,123 yards and 14 touchdowns and a 5.3 yard-per-carry average. He was only the seventh ball carrier in school history to exceed 1,000 yards. He is also a valuable receiver, adding 454 yards on 53 catches to finish 36th nationally in all-purpose yardage with a 131.4 yard average. This season the Cougars should have the best combined run-pass threat since 2001 when Brandon Doman and that year's Doak Walker winner, Luke Staley, combined for huge numbers. Brown won't need to be such a workhorse this season. The biggest breakthrough in spring ball was Fui Vakapuna (6-1, 225), a sophomore returning from his mission. Vakapuna is a punishing runner in contrast to Brown's explosive bursts. "Fui will be an impact player in this league right away," Mendenhall said. "He has great speed and a very physical body." The Cougars occasionally make use of a fullback, with sophomore Manase Tonga (5-11, 235) and junior Joe Semanoff (5-10, 215) available for duty.
BYU lost one of it all-time fastest wide-outs when Todd Watkins became a final-round NFL draft pick. There aren't any similar deep threats, but a throwback to the classic BYU profile of precise route runners with excellent hands. The top-producing returning receiver is Nate Meikle (5-9, 175) with 36 catches for 292 yards. Three others bring some experience in junior Matt Allen (5-11, 180), sophomore Michael Reed (6-1, 201) and senior Zac Collie (5-11, 190). Meikle had his breakout game in the Las Vegas Bowl with 12 catches for 93 yards. Collie's younger brother, Austin, won MWC Freshman-of-the-Year honors for BYU in 2004 but this season will be serving the second year of his mission. The top newcomer to the wide-out ranks is freshman McKay Jacobson (6-0, 185), who graduated early from high school in Texas to get a start in spring ball. The strength of the receiving corps lies in a deep group of tight ends. Yet another returning first-team All-MWC player is senior Jonny Harline (6-4, 226) who made an immediate impact last season as a Ricks Junior College transfer when he led the nation's tight ends with 63 passes for 853 yards and five touchdowns. Harline earned the John Mackey National Tight End of the Week award after grabbing 10 passes for 123 yards against New Mexico. For depth and double-tight end situations there is senior Daniel Coats (6-3, 256), who was stellar as a redshirt freshman, earning numerous honors in 2003. His production fell off in his sophomore season, and he was overshadowed by Harline last season. There is further depth from sophomore Vic So'oto (6-3, 240) who played in 11 games as a freshman, junior Philip Niu (6-5, 243) if he can overcome the injuries that cost him his last two seasons, and redshirt freshman Andrew George (6-4, 226).
Three of the five starters return, led by second-team All-MWC senior Jake Kuresa (6-4, 339) at right tackle. The three-year starter came to BYU as defensive lineman but made the switch as a freshman redshirt. The superb pass blocker will be the primary awards candidate on the line. The other starters back are senior left tackle Eddie Keele (6-5, 312) and sophomore left guard Dallas Reynolds, (6-4, 345), who's coming off freshman All-America honors. The biggest void is at center, where Reynolds' older brother, Lance, Jr., was a mainstay. They are the sons of assistant head coach Lance Reynolds, the dean of the coaching staff heading into his 24th season. The top candidate at center is Jeff Rhea (6-3, 292), a junior who has earned two letters in reserve. Sophomore Ray Feinga (6-5, 334) will start at right guard. He started one game last season. Although the nucleus is solid, depth is a critical issue. A key newcomer will be Vanderbilt transfer Tom Sorenson (6-5, 305). If a true freshman has a chance at seeing playing time, it's Rick Woffley (6-4, 315), the top player out of Wyoming.
Yet another member of the offense is set with returning starter senior Jared McLaughlin (6-4, 198). After three years of waiting around behind Matt Payne, McLaughlin hit 14 of his 19 field goal attempts in '05, with a season best 47-yarder. He was perfect from inside 39 yards. If his distance improves, he could be yet another postseason honors candidate for the Cougars.
The biggest challenge for the defensive staff is replacing the entire three-man starting lineup. The four seniors who shared the three positions a year ago are gone. The staff placed a priority on recruiting defensive linemen but experience will be negligible. Halo Paongo (6-2, 280), the lone senior of the bunch, drew the start in the Las Vegas Bowl and is expected to start at nose tackle. At left end, sophomore Kyle Luekenga (6-3, 263) gets the nod after playing in seven games a year ago. There is a familiar name behind him in redshirt freshman Brett Denny (6-4, 250) The projected backup had two older brothers precede him on the defensive line, including Ryan Denney, a second round draft pick by Buffalo in 1992. The least experience is at right defensive end, where Jan Jorgensen (6-3 255), a redshirt freshman, leads the candidates for the starting assignment. He originally signed with Kentucky, then took his mission and decided instead on BYU. The backup in the spring was junior Judd Anderton (6-5, 269), who saw action in only four games last season. While the repetitions in the spring, especially for the projected starters, were invaluable, the actual two-deep may not take shape until August, if not later. "It's been fun, and come the fall, none of us want to have any of the freshmen come in and take any of our spots," Jorgensen told the Deseret News. "So, we're all going to work hard and compete at a high level come fall." The recruits include freshmen Matangi Tonga (6-2, 270), Romney Fuga (6-2, 280), Ian Dulan (6-1, 245), Jordan Richardson (6-4, 250) and junior college transfer Mosese Foketi (6-1, 255). "We need three to come in and contribute," Mendenhall said. "Of those five or six coming in, it's a great opportunity for three of them to emerge and contribute earlier than what would be normally the case."
The unquestioned leader of the defense is senior Cameron Jensen (6-2, 241), a two-year starter coming off second team All-MWC honors. He was voted the team's defensive MVP. Jensen, who will start in the middle, has so much company in the linebacking corps that Mendenhall decided to adjust the 3-3-5 to a 3-4. "We have nine linebackers who could contribute," Mendenhall said. The depth is impressive given the loss of two starters to graduation. Junior Bryan Kehl (6-2, 219) assured himself of a starting job at one of the outside positions with a breakout off-season. He earned high praise from Mendenhall. "He had the most impressive any player this spring," Mendenhall said. Junior Markell Stafferi (6-3, 233), a part-time starter and key backup last season, moves into a full-time starting role inside with Jensen. At the other outside positions, junior Chris Bolden (6-1, 230) and sophomore David Nixon (6-3, 220) are vying for starting honors. Much depends on how Nixon progresses from his layoff to serve a mission. A hamstring pull kept the staff from getting a good look at Utah State transfer Kelly Poppinga (6-2, 242), younger from of ex-BYU standout Brady Poppinga. More experience comes from senior Gary Lovely (6-1, 198), who played in 11 games last season. Senior Aaron Wagner, (6-3, 247) whose season was cut short by a knee injury, will also be in the mix.
BYU's most glaring weakness in 2005 was a pass defense that yielded 269.3 yards a game, last in the Mountain West and 104th nationally. Mendenhall readily admits the team was ill-suited personnel wise for a five-man secondary. Safety Dustin Gabriel, a starter in all but two games, has been moved to outside linebacker. Another starting safety, Spencer White, graduated. Lining up at free safety will be David Tafuna (6-1, 198), a junior who worked his way into a starting position in the last two games. Junior Corby Hodgkiss (5-11, 196) again figures in the depth chart, while converted cornerback Cole Miyahira (6-0, 195) is the projected starter at strong safety. There is ample experience at cornerback, with returning starters Justin Robinson (5-7, 154) and Kayle Buchanan (6-1, 197) a junior. Robinson led the Cougars in pass breakups with 10. redshirt freshmen Brandon Howard (5-10, 165) and Nate Hutchinson (6-3, 190) go into the fall listed as backups. The secondary was another recruiting priority that could produce some newcomers in the lineup.
Washington transfer Derek McLaughlin (6-1, 203), no relation to the kicker with the same last name, is back for his senior year after producing a 40-yard average last season. He landed 13 of his 48 punts inside the 20. McLaughlin averaged 41.2 yards as a freshman at Washington, but he never returned, going on a mission before transferring. Kicker Jared McLaughlin is also listed as the back up punter.
While the kicking game is solid, the return game left much to be desired last season. BYU ranked 110th nationally in kickoff returns, next to last in the MWC, and 94th in punt returns. Wide receiver Nathan Meikle is back as the top punt return specialist; he averaged 7.0 yards a return in '05. Kickoff return chores are up for grabs. The top returnee, safety Justin Robinson, was used only three times but had the best average at 20.0 a game. The Cougars are taking the deep snapper position seriously, signing Matthew Johnson (6-0, 245) from Citrus (Calif.) Junior College purely as a deep-snapping specialist.
With the possible exception of a deep receiving threat and some inexperience on the interior offensive line, BYU has all the ingredients to produce huge offensive numbers.
The Cougars have the best quarterback in the league in returning All-MWC first-team senior John Beck. Anyone who overlooks the running game, with the revived 1-2 punch of Brown and Vakapuna, will pay dearly. The question is whether the offense can score enough to compensate for a defense that is green up front, and goes into the season with a reputation in the Mountain West for some ineptitude against other passing attacks.
While the offense is clearly the class of the MWC, the Cougars have much to prove on defense before they can challenge defending champ TCU and resurgent Utah for the title. The latter two are proven on defense and those games will likely determine the league championship.Unlike last season and 2003, BYU gets its non-league schedule out of the way before embarking on conference play. Notre Dame is not on the schedule for the first time since 2002. Unlike most years, however, there are no home games against teams from BCS conferences. The toughest non-league test will come with a Sept. 16 trip to Boston College. An opening win at Arizona could do wonders for confidence. If Beck's numbers are substantial in the first month, national exposure for the gifted senior and his teammates will follow. Any kind of defensive improvement should guarantee a top three finish in the league. If the Cougars can knock off Boston College, they should move into the Top 25 before long.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).