No. 20: B.Y.U.
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 14, 2012
The suspicion was there in October and November, but it didn’t become official until Riley Nelson duped Tulsa, Dan Marino-style, late in the fourth quarter of December’s Armed Forces Bowl. Then it was official: Nelson’s become a legend. Not quite a Ty Detmer-level legend, mind you; Detmer was legendary, and there’s a difference. Nelson’s a legend in the Merriam-Webster definition of the word, third from the top: “a popular myth of recent origin.” Popular? Nelson’s popularity is off the charts in Provo, thanks to the way he put B.Y.U. on his shoulders and carried it to a 10-win season despite a horribly disappointing start. Nelson wasn’t due to see the field at all, not with Jake Heaps back for a full season as the starter, but a funny thing happened on the road to the Heisman: Heaps struggled. Nelson’s ascension to the starting role, so vital last fall, now gives B.Y.U. a leader, an identity and a shot at making some national noise in its second go-round as an Independent.
14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 20
at Boise St.
- Sept. 28
- Oct. 5
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
at Notre Dame
- Oct. 27
at Georgia Tech
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
at San Jose St.
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
Does the year end at 0-4? It doesn’t end, but there’s no great gains to be made with that start. What of 1-3? It would be disappointing, to put it lightly. And 2-2? Survivable. And 3-1? Then the Cougars are primed for 10 or 11 wins in the regular season, that’s what, and put me in the group of people who see that coming to pass in 2011. And you know what else? I think Mendenhall and the Cougars know that everyone will be watching, keeping an eye on our newest Independent, which I believe will help the Cougars offset their typical early-season lull. And as we know full well, B.Y.U. always, always, always finishes strong. I think very highly of this team. That’s just me. But there’s room on the bandwagon if you want to get aboard.
In a nutshell The bottom line: 10 wins. That was the program’s baseline for success in 2011, its first year as an Independent, and B.Y.U. was able to get there with a strong close to the season. But it wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t all that impressive. The Cougars notched only one win in the regular season, against Utah State, over a team that reached bowl play. In all, the Cougars went 2-3 against bowl teams; that includes the Armed Forces Bowl win over Tulsa. Four of B.Y.U.’s wins came against F.B.S. opponents that won four games or less in the regular season. A fifth came against Idaho State. Pretty? Not quite. But here’s the deal: B.Y.U. wants to win 10 games every year. Eventually, as the program finds its footing as an Independent, how the Cougars go about getting those 10 wins – beating good teams would be nice – will become more important than the end result. When it comes to 2011, double-digit wins was good enough.
High point A 24-21 win over Tulsa in bowl play. B.Y.U.’s best win on the year, it was sealed by Nelson’s late fake-spike-pass to Cody Hoffman, who scored each of the Cougars’ three touchdowns.
Low point A very sour start. A 14-13 win over Mississippi – that looked worse and worse as the year wore on – came about despite a 13-0 fourth quarter deficit; the Cougars only won after recovering a fumble in the end zone with five minutes left. That narrow win was followed by an ugly loss at Texas and, worst of all, a 54-10 loss to Utah, at home, in the Holy War. To find a more one-sided B.Y.U. loss in the bitter series you need to go back to… 1922, when the Utes and Cougars met for the first time.
Tidbit Bronco Mendenhall is in two very select clubs among active head coaches on the F.B.S. level. He is one of three to post five double-digit win seasons in his first seven years at a program, joining Mark Richt and Bob Stoops. Mendenhall is also one of four active coaches who have reached bowl play in each of their first seven years, joining Richt, Stoops and Whittingham.
Tidbit (B.C.S. conference edition) B.Y.U. has topped at least one B.C.S. conference opponent in each of the last six seasons and in 15 of the last 16 seasons overall. The lone exception was in 2005, Mendenhall’s first year with the program, when the Cougars lost to Boston College, Notre Dame and California, the latter during bowl play. The recent six-year stretch includes seven victories over the Pac-12 and one each against the SEC and Big 12.
Tidbit (2013 edition) While some of the dates appear to still be in the air, B.Y.U. has nearly solidified its 2013 schedule. And what a schedule it will be: B.Y.U. is poised to take on Texas, Boise State, Georgia Tech and Utah at home – should both sides get on the same page – and Utah State, Wisconsin, Houston, Notre Dame and Washington State on the road. They don’t make schedules like this anymore.
Tidbit (good coaching edition) B.Y.U. is one of two N.C.A.A. programs with both its head football and men’s basketball coaches ranked among the top 10 in career winning percentage among active coaches. Mendenhall (73.3 percent) ranks eighth in the F.B.S., while Dave Rose (77.7) ranks fourth on the hardwood.
Former players in the N.F.L.
16 QB John Beck (Houston), WR Austin Collie (Indianapolis), LS John Denney (Miami), DT Hebron Fangupo (Houston), OG Ray Feinga (Miami), S Aaron Francisco (Tennessee), WR McKay Jacobson (Philadelphia), LB Bryan Kehl (Washington), DE Brett Keisel (Pittsburgh), LB David Nixon (Carolina), TE Dennis Pitta (Baltimore), OG Dallas Reynolds (Philadelphia), OT Matt Reynolds (Carolina), LB Vic So’oto (Green Bay), FB Manase Tonga (Oakland), RB Harvey Unga (Chicago).
Arbitrary top five list
Horatio Nelson’s greatest victories
2. The Nile.
4. Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
5. Cape St. Vincent.
Bronco Mendenhall (Oregon State ’88), 66-24 after seven years with the program. Mendenhall also owned a sterling 39-9 mark in Mountain West play over his six years in the conference, though that means nothing anymore. The Cougars departed the M.W.C. on a low note in 2010, failing to win at least 10 games for the first time since 2006, Mendenhall’s second year with the program. But that season seemed to mirror Mendenhall’s debut campaign, back in 2005, when he piloted a young, unconfident team to a 6-6 finish. Then the Cougars took off; while B.Y.U. didn’t match my expectations last fall, the team did notch another double-digit win finish. Prior to taking over as head coach, Mendenhall spent two years as the Cougars’ defensive coordinator under Gary Crowton. When Crowton was fired, B.Y.U. first reached out to Utah’s Kyle Whittingham – who at first accepted the job, then changed his mind – before promoting Mendenhall. Good move. Even when taking into account his 6-6 debut and the 7-6 mark in 2010, the former B.Y.U. assistant is off to the greatest start to a coaching career in the program’s history; yes, even better than the great LaVell Edwards. Mendenhall’s F.B.S. assistant stops, not including B.Y.U., include five years at New Mexico (1998-2002, all as defensive coordinator), a single season at Louisiana Tech (1997, secondary coach) and two years at Oregon State (1995-96, defensive coordinator his final season). Mendenhall was 29 when he got his first coordinator shot with the Beavers, making him the youngest coordinator in the history of the Pac-12. Brigham Young’s second choice has been an inspired one; I have no doubt that as long as Mendenhall remains with the program, we’ll see B.Y.U. competing for a spot at the national table. The next step, of course, is to lead the Cougars to the next level while taking a Notre Dame-like approach to non-conference scheduling.
Players to watch
Riley Nelson replaced Jake Heaps late against Utah State, led the Cougars to a pair of scores, including the game-winner with seconds left, and never looked back. As a result, B.Y.U. went from a potential disappointment to its fifth double-digit win season in seven years. That’s the takeaway from Nelson’s turn as in-season savior: B.Y.U. wins games when he’s in, loses when he’s not. That’s life for the Cougars, though it seems as if those outside the program don’t see Nelson’s winning ways, but rather a short, athletically limited, inaccurate passer with some questionable decision-making skills and a not overly large skill set.
Well, Nelson’s none of those things – well, not all of those things. Yes, he’s not a dream quarterback: Nelson is listed at 6’0, though that might be a touch overblown, and yes, he is prone to a head-scratching throw once or twice every Saturday. He’s not going to blow your doors off outside the pocket. Nelson won’t knife the ball into a tight spot, shocking a defensive back with a rocket behind the back shoulder. Physically limited? I’d say that’s unfair, but only to a point: Nelson is no Heaps, for example.
Nope, he’s no Heaps. He’s a winning quarterback who has provided this offense – and this team – with steady leadership and a new identity; B.Y.U. now runs its entire offense through a dual-threat, senior quarterback who has proved himself more than capable of shouldering the entire load. Last fall, Nelson completed 57.4 percent of his attempts for 1,717 yards and 19 scores, adding another 392 yards on the ground, and did so in only six starts. He simply gave B.Y.U. what it had been lacking at quarterback over the last two seasons despite all of Heaps’ next-level gifts: steadiness and leadership.
So what does Nelson do for an encore? He cuts down on the shield-your-eyes throws that dotted last season, especially during the bowl win over Tulsa – a game in which he struggled before pulling a rabbit out of his hat late. B.Y.U. needs to continue stressing a deep passing game, which plays to Nelson’s strengths; he averaged 8.5 yards per attempt, a total that tied for 11th nationally. More than anything, B.Y.U. needs to run the offense through Nelson’s arm and his legs, as it’s with Nelson at the center that the Cougars’ complimentary pieces can simply do their jobs and not worry about carrying the offense. Nelson is a senior, a veteran, a leader and a winner. Physically limited? Who cares?
One thing Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman need to settle on is a backup quarterback. It’s an important decision, not only because Nelson’s hard-charging style leaves him open to the odd injury but because this year’s backup – like a sitting Vice President – will have a leg up in the competition to be B.Y.U.’s starter in 2013. As of now, however, Nelson’s backup is senior James Lark, who has played in seven games over the last two years. With Lark gone after this season, B.Y.U. might try to get sophomore Taysom Hill into the mix; he’s the likely starter in 2013, though there’s time for another quarterback to state his case over the next 12 months.
It’s somewhat rare that a freshman skill player makes a huge impact for B.Y.U., though not completely uncommon. The Cougars will need at least one newcomer – one is a sophomore, a former rugby star – to step into a role at running back, now that B.Y.U. moves forward without J.J. Di Luigi and Josh Quezada, the latter a would-be junior who transferred in July. For now, that leaves the Cougars with only one proven back, junior Michael Alisa (455 yards), and he’ll need to carry this running game in the early going.
But he has Nelson to help him move the sticks, and B.Y.U. is high on true freshman Jamaal Williams, redshirt freshman Adam Hine and sophomore Paul Lasike, a New Zealand prospect who will try to translate his rugby skills to the gridiron. B.Y.U. also returns David Foote (146 yards), a do-everything senior who gave this offense an occasional burst over the second half of last season.
B.Y.U.’s receiver corps is the most underrated in the country. It’s headlined by two standouts, junior Cody Hoffman (61 catches for 943 yards and 10 scores) and sophomore Ross Apo (34 for 453), a pair that really gelled with Nelson over the final seven or eight games of last season – Hoffman made 42 grabs for 685 yards from mid-October on, for example. Their length and athleticism will present mismatches for every cornerback pairing in the nation; Hoffman is 6’4, Apo is 6’3, and both give Nelson two steady and sure-handed targets in the red zone and on third down. Few are talking about this pair; more should.
The Cougars also return junior J.D. Faslev (31 for 330), who also closed strong, and have a great one-two tight end duo in juniors Marcus Matthews (27 for 299) and Keneakua Friel. While Matthews is the pure pass-catching tight end, Friel is a very valuable cog in the Cougars’ run game as an edge blocker. B.Y.U. has a third target at tight end in junior Richard Wilson (11 for 130), who had a very nice start to last fall before suffering an injury in October. While depth is a slight concern, Mendenhall and Doman are hopeful that an underclassmen – like Dylan Collie – will be ready to provide support by October.
This will be a vintage B.Y.U. defense – vintage meaning like 2006, 1985, 1984, the glory days. The Cougars has taken on a new feel since Mendenhall took over defensive coordinator duties in 2010; since doing so, against San Diego State on Oct. 9, Mendenhall’s defense has allowed an average of 19.1 points and 295.3 yards per game. Look for even further improvement in 2012, when B.Y.U. returns seven starters, one of the best linebacker corps in the country and a deep and experienced secondary fresh off one of the best performances in recent program history. The reason why B.Y.U. can hang with the top-notch teams on its schedule is simple: the Cougars tout one heck of a defense.
And it starts with these linebackers. Once B.Y.U. returns a healthy Kyle Van Noy (68 tackles, 15.0 for los, 7.0 sacks), it will put forth a quartet that ranks alongside any in the F.B.S. – perhaps behind teams like Georgia, Stanford and Michigan State, but certainly in the national conversation. Van Noy is a hav0c-maker on the weak side, where he’s put to good use as the Cougars’ most devastatingly effective edge rusher.
With Jameson Frazier and Jordan Pendelton gone, B.Y.U. will toss the strong side over to junior Spencer Hadley (45 tackles), who should be a better fit on the outside than he was in the middle. Hadley isn’t a proven rusher – Frazier and Pendleton did a nice job in this regard – but he can make plays, as evidenced by his 12-tackle showing against Texas and long interception return against Idaho.
But he’s expendable in the middle, where B.Y.U. returns seniors Uona Kaveinga (57 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and Brandon Ogletree (76 tackles). Kaveinga, a former U.S.C. transfer, finally grasped a long-awaited starting job last fall. He teamed with Ogletree, a returning starter, to help B.Y.U. make a drastic improvement against the run. The issue with moving Headley is that it does place added pressure on sophomore Tyler Beck to provide support along the second grouping. Beck is a future starter, so he was due to see some increased playing time regardless.
This defensive front is mountainous. Senior Romney Fuga (25 tackles) brings 320 pounds of heft to the nose tackle position. Eathyn Manumaleuna (33 tackles), a 290-pound senior, controls the point of attack at end. He found a home outside last fall after shuffling inside to replace Fuga in 2010; Fuga missed most of that season, forcing B.Y.U. to move Manumaleuna to nose tackle, but the line was back in its original formation a year ago.
In fact, that injury is worth noting: Fuga tore up his knee that September, and it typically takes two years for a player to work his way back to his prior form – especially a plus-sized interior linemen. Manumaleuna will be joined at end by senior Ian Dulan, a former starter who took a redshirt last fall after returning from his mission. Dulan is flying in under the radar, but I think he could be a breakout star along the front seven.
B.Y.U.’s secondary is steady but spectacular – a phrase that could be used to define this entire defense, in fact. It’s a veteran group that breaks in some fresh blood with sophomore Jordan Johnson (16 tackles, 2 interceptions), who steps in for Corby Eason at cornerback. While Johnson was impressive in his first taste of game action, he’s due to receive the lion’s share of attention from opposing quarterbacks; senior Preston Hadley (51 tackles) is a far more experienced starter with a nose for the football, and I wouldn’t be surprised if teams shied away from his side while Johnson proves himself.
One theme echoed out of spring camp: Daniel Sorensen (61 tackles, 2 interceptions) and Joe Sampson (23 tackles, 5.0 for loss) were making plays at safety. Getting this sort of production from the back end would be enormous for this defense, which had some issues last fall preventing the big play – the Cougars ranked 48th nationally in allowing plays of 40 or more yards. While Sampson was Sorensen’s backup last fall, moving him over to free safety allows B.Y.U. to get its two best on the field at the same time. Depth comes from senior Mike Hague, a former fullback entering his second season on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cougars are close to holding the edge on special teams, but they must get more consistency from junior kicker Justin Sorensen, who started last season strong but had an awful second half – Sorensen made 9 of his first 10 field goals but only 6 of his last 15. Part of his decline can been tied to a back injury, one that forced Sorensen to undergo offseason surgery. While he has yet to return to the field, Mendenhall has stated that he expects Sorensen back for the opener. If Sorensen takes a step forward – and he’s viewed as a major prospect – B.Y.U. will have a nice kicking game to go with its explosive return game. Hoffman and senior Mike Hague handle kickoffs while Falslev works on punt returns. Hoffman and Falslev scored one special teams touchdown apiece last fall.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line B.Y.U. might be returning three starters off of last year’s front, but two will be changing positions – while the returning experience helps, this line remains a constant point of emphasis for Mendenhall and this staff heading into the season opener. One thing that’s clearly evident, however, is that the Cougars’ linemen have rededicated themselves in the weight room and on the buffet line, hitting the first and ignoring the latter; the line is not only smaller than in the past but also notably better conditioned, which might help B.Y.U. not only combat the sort of injuries that have plagued the line over the last few years but also get a more consistent, 60-minute effort on a weekly basis.
The only returning starter who remains in his old spot is senior right tackle Braden Brown, a former tight end who has started every game over the last two seasons. But the Cougars will shift senior Braden Hansen from right to left guard, once Hansen gets his conditioning in order, and move left guard Houston Reynolds from left guard to center. The two moves allow B.Y.U. to move Reynolds into a key spot in the middle, where he should flourish, while handing a starting role over to sophomore Brock Stringham, who will take over at right guard. On the blind side, B.Y.U. will replace an all-American in Matt Reynolds with a redshirt freshman, Ryker Matthews, and let the youngster take his lumps. But Matthews is bound to be special: he spent last season behind Reynolds, learning the craft, and held offers from several national powers as a high school senior.
If he falters, B.Y.U. could always turn to sophomore Michael Yeck, last year’s backup on the blind side and the top reserve at right tackle. While there are some moving pieces up front, I like what B.Y.U. can do on the edge with Matthews and Brown; in addition, moving Hansen and Reynolds should lead to a stronger showing along the interior. The biggest issue, as of today, is Hansen’s current standing in Mendenhall’s doghouse. While he’s trimmed some additional weight, Hansen needs to work his way back into the staff’s good graces with a strong fall camp.
Game(s) to watch
It’s certainly a tougher schedule than last year’s version, which was difficult in September but mostly a cakewalk late – outside of T.C.U., that is. Then again, it’s not quite as hearty a slate as B.Y.U. will encounter in 2013, as noted earlier. The Cougars take on four teams I have in or just outside the top 25: Boise State, Utah, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. In addition, each game comes on the road. B.Y.U. also plays host to another pair of Pac-12 opponents in Washington State and Oregon State, gets a tough Utah State team in October and can’t afford a late slipup against San Jose State in November. It’s a tough schedule, but it’s survivable – and one that gives B.Y.U. many opportunities to make noise.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell A tougher schedule, but also a better team. B.Y.U. is better nearly across the board, from quarterback to safety, and there’s no reason why the Cougars can’t take last season’s solid finish and carry it over to this fall, notching yet another double-digit win season. Notching another 10 wins will take a victory during bowl play, however, as I can’t see this team escaping the regular season with less than three losses; there’s Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, all on the road, not to mention a pair of Pac-12 games in Provo. That’s a serious schedule, but as noted, it’s what the Cougars signed on for when the program became an Independent: B.Y.U. wants to make a larger impact, to have a wider footprint, and one way to do that is schedule up from September through November.
Why the Cougars can survive this schedule – and flourish, even – is because of the team’s senior leadership, potential to dominate at receiver, tremendous front seven and steady secondary. Overall, this defense will be the best since 2006, Mendenhall’s second season, and should end the year ranked among the best in college football. On offense, the Cougars have a leader in Nelson, who simply wills this team to victory late in games, and one of the more underappreciated receiver corps in the nation – Hoffman, Apo and Matthews form a very dynamic trio. Alone, the team’s talent is enough to win eight games. Whether B.Y.U. gets beyond that point hinges on offensive line play, which in turn will have a tremendous impact on the team’s running game. For now, that’s the team’s biggest concern: B.Y.U. has shuffled things up front in search of the right combination, but it was frustrating to see the offense sputter during the spring while the line worked its way into form.
B.Y.U. should set the baseline and eight wins and push hard for nine, and the latter total is doable if the line rounds into form. There are great teams on this schedule, but none with the firepower to blow the Cougars’ doors off. Again, the defense will keep B.Y.U. in every game. To get to 10-2 would likely take a 3-1 mark during those four tough road games; more likely, the Cougars do no better than split that pair and head into bowl play with nine wins. In that case, while I think very highly of B.Y.U.’s quarterback, receivers and defense, the nine wins would come against the weaker portion of this schedule – which would justify a national ranking, but not one among the top 10 or 15 teams in the country.
Dream season B.Y.U. loses only once, at Georgia Tech, winning 11 games for the first time since 2009 and the third time overall under Mendenhall. The final score on Sept. 15: B.Y.U. 38, Utah 6. This is a dream season.
Nightmare season The good teams dominate: B.Y.U. loses to the Utes, Boise State, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Washington State and Oregon State, suffering six losses for the second time in three years.
In case you were wondering
Where do B.Y.U. fans congregate? I’m always pleasantly surprised by the number of solid B.Y.U. Web sites, such as Cougar Board, Vanquish the Foe, Cougar Blue and Cougar Corner, among others. For recruiting coverage, a topic growing in popularity among the B.Y.U. football faithful, check out Total Blue Sports and Cougar Nation.
B.Y.U.’s all-name nominee DE Remington Peck.
Through 105 teams 427,568.
Who is No. 19? As an F.B.S. assistant, the head coach at tomorrow’s program served under three head coaches with a combined career record of 480-225-2.
Tags: B.Y.U., Braden Brown, Braden Hansen, Brandon Doman, Brandon Ogletree, Bronco Mendenhall, Cody Hoffman, Daniel Sorensen, Dylan Collie, Eathyn Manumaleuna, Houston Reynolds, Independents, Jamaal Williams, Joe Sampson, Justin Sorensen, Kyle Van Noy, Marcus Matthews, Michael Alisa, Preston Hadley, Riley Nelson, Romney Fuga, Ross Apo, Ryker Matthwes, Spencer Hadley, Taysom Hill, Uona Kaveinga
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