Wednesday, December 23, 2009

BYU wraps up, pleased (believe it or not).

The Wimple welcomes guest blogger and BYU-fan Jake, to wrap up the 2009 Cougars and preview next season in Provo.

It’s funny how two seasons can progress so similarly and yet feel so differently. This was certainly the story of BYU football in 2008 and 2009. Although BYU went 10-2 in each of these two regular seasons, fans generally received the 2009 campaign much more favorably, helped by the Cougars beating their archrival and winning their bowl.

The Cougars started off the season with an explosion, pulling off a huge upset of then-#3 Oklahoma and jumping into the top 10, triggering discussion of the Cougars sneaking into the national title game. Two weeks later, that discussion ended as abruptly as it had begun as Florida State steamrolled the Cougars in Provo. BYU won its next four games and had regained some confidence heading into the College Gameday showdown with the Horned Frogs. That confidence was quickly shattered as TCU dominated the game from start to finish. After the TCU loss, it looked as though the season could slip away from BYU. However, the Cougars regrouped, the defense played its best football of the season down the stretch, and BYU ended the season on a four-game winning streak, including a dramatic overtime win over archrival Utah and a dominating beatdown of Oregon State in the Cougars' fifth straight Las Vegas Bowl.

Perhaps the most positive surprise for the BYU offense in 2009 was the play of the offensive line. The line returned only one starter (LT Matt Reynolds), and any semblance of depth was largely eradicated by injuries during fall camp (the Cougars traveled only seven offensive linemen to the season opener against Oklahoma). But the line gelled quickly, fueled by the contributions of new starters like Nick Alletto, Terence Brown and Braden Hansen. They powered a BYU offense that averaged 437 yards and over 34 points per game and allowed less than two sacks per game. They are a bright spot for BYU’s offense next year, which must replace the great majority of its passing production.

Much of the credit for BYU’s offensive production rests with Max Hall, who graduates with the school record for most wins by a starting QB. After starting the season with ten interceptions in its first five games, Hall threw just four INTs in the last seven, went over 300 yards eight times during the season, and wrote a new chapter in BYU football lore with his game-winning touchdown pass to Andrew George in overtime. A primary question for BYU in 2010 is who will replace Hall. Many question whether backup Riley Nelson's propensity to tuck the football and run is a good fit for BYU’s typically sit-in-the-pocket-and-throw offense. Jake Heaps (pictured) is BYU’s biggest recruiting get in several years—rated by some services the #1 high school quarterback in the country, and MVP of Nike’s prestigious Elite 11 quarterback camp. Perhaps the most intriguing returning missionaries are the two at the quarterback spot, Jason Munns and James Lark. Cougar fans seems to agree that Munns had the better shot at the starting position, but missing spring practice gives Nelson or Heaps the chance to secure the early #1 spot.

At running back, Harvey Unga turned in his third straight 1000 yard season—a first for BYU football. Whether he'll depart early for the NFL will greatly colort BYU’s offseason. Graduating FB Manase Tonga provided crucial lead run-blocking and pass protection and scored seven touchdowns. His departure will certainly be felt in the 2010 offense. Sophomore J.J. DiLuigi provided a quicker change of pace to Unga, getting 250 yards both on the ground and through the air and scoring seven touchdowns. Bryan Kariya impressed as Unga’s replacement against Oklahoma; his workload decreased as Unga came back to action. The offensive line and receiving corps return most of their players, which should ease the transition for the new starting QB. Even if Unga doesn’t return, DiLuigi and Kariya will provide valuable experience in the backfield. '10 sophs Jo Jo Pili and Anthony Heimuli will battle to replace Tonga at fullback.

The strength of BYU’s passing attack was largely built on Hall’s connection with his two senior tight ends, All-American Dennis Pitta and backup Andrew George. The two combined for 83 catches, 1,146 yards and 12 touchdowns, and were the first teammates to earn first- and second-team all-MWC honors in the same season. Their production will be missed, but expect returning WRs O’Neil Chambers, McKay Jacobson, Luke Ashworth, Spencer Hafoka, Brett Thompson to fill much of the lack. Don’t be surprised to see BYU utilize a tight end much less next season, and certainly many fewer two-TE sets (expect to see more of a two-wide, one split tight end and one H-back/receiver set next year, similar to what BYU largely ran in 2005 and 2006).

Who'll be the next great BYU tight end? Braden Brown's move from TE to tackle looks as though it may be permanent. Likewise, highly-touted TE recruit Richard Wilson spent some time this year practicing at linebacker. Redshirt freshman Mike Muehlmann to be in the mix next season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wilson switched back to the offensive side of the ball. Returning missionary Austin Holt received offers from several cartel schools and will try to get immediate playing time at TE as well.

Jaime Hill’s second year of calling the plays as defensive coordinator was an improvement over last year's, although BYU’s defensive line performance was a bit of a mixed bag. First-team all-conference DE Jan Jorgensen battled all year for the MWC career lead in sacks. Brett Denney did well at the other end, recording 41 tackles and 2.5 sacks. DT Russell Tialavea struggled with conditioning coming into the season and with injuries during the season, and never truly seemed himself. Tialavea’s struggles allowed sophomore DT Romney Fuga to shine, as he recorded 38 tackles in his backup role. Jorgensen and Denney both depart, as do three starting linebackers. From the current roster, look for sophomore Matt Putnam, redshirt freshman Jordan Richardson, and freshman Mason Higham to be the main competitors for the starting DE spots. Both Tialavea and Fuga return to man the DT position. DT Eathyn Manumaleuna, best known for his block of the potential game-winning field goal in the 2007 Las Vegas Bowl against UCLA, returns from a mission and will push Russell Tialavea and Romney Fuga for playing time.

The linebacking corps generally provided solid run support but often struggled against mobile quarterbacks and in pass protection. Coleby Clawson (best known for ending Sam Bradford's college career) led the group with five sacks and seven TFLs, and Jordan Pendleton, speedy if slightly undersized, playing his first year in the position. Matt Bauman and Shawn Doman were multi-year starters whose experience will be missed next season.

That three of BYU’s four starters in the secondary this year earned at least honorable mention all-conference honors speaks volumes to the coaching job done by Hill and company, and made the secondary perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the BYU season. JUCO transfer Brian Logan, one of the smallest players in FBS, recorded three interceptions and was an exceptional open-field tackler, earning an all-MWC honorable mention. Brandon Bradley, was generally more of a run-stopping corner due to his position on the short side of the field. S Scott Johnson (also honorable mention all-MWC) moved from his cornerback position last season, recording three interceptions and serving as the field general in the secondary. S Andrew Rich led the team with four interceptions and earned a reputation as a heavy hitter across the middle, earning him second-team all-MWC honors. In the secondary, all starters except Scott Johnson return, and this should actually be a strength of the BYU defense in 2010. To replace Johnson, highly-touted freshman Craig Bills is an easy choice—he intercepted two passes in spot duty this year and was basically groomed to fill Johnson’s shoes throughout the season. However, there is a chance that Bills will leave on a mission next year, and there has been some talk that CB Brandon Bradley might be moved to the safety spot, as the Cougars have more depth at corner than at safety.

Bronco Mendenhall will signing perhaps the best recruiting class ever at BYU. Scout counts 21 verbal commits rated at three stars or higher—in recent memory, the highest similar count for BYU in one season has been twelve. Scout ranks the class thirteenth nationally. Heaps is certainly the jewel of the class. His importance to this recruiting class cannot be overstated, not only because he is a big name, but because he has taken it upon himself to get other highly-rated players to join him at BYU. His efforts helped land four-star California linebacker Zac Stout over offers from Nebraska and several PAC-10 schools, as well as wide receiver Ross Apo, a Dallas-area standout who had previously committed to Texas. Other highlights include DEs Bronson Kaufusi (nationally 11th-ranked) and Kona Schwenke. Graham Rowley played both OL and DL; Tayo Fabuluje, who plays high school ball with Ross Apo, committed to BYU over offers from Arkansas and Arizona State. Running backs Drew Phillips, A.J. Moore, and Algernon Brown are the types of athletes BYU rarely gets. Another notable is LB Kyle Van Noy, who signed with the Cougars's last class, but won't join the team until 2010. Many Cougar fans expect him to immediately compete to start.

BYU’s four nonconference games next year are against Washington (home), Nevada (home), Florida State (away) and Utah State (away). The Washington game just became a lot more interesting with Jake Locker returning. The Nevada game should be a home win as the Wolf Pack lose much of their offensive firepower from this season. Florida State may be an unknown quantity with a new head coach, but Tallahassee will be an incredibly tough place to play for a new BYU quarterback. Utah State is improving but still just doesn’t have the talent to keep up with the Cougars.

In conference play, the Cougars’ 2009 blessing becomes their 2010 curse—2009 home games against Air Force, TCU and Utah become road games in 2010, along with Colorado State, who nearly knocked off the Cougars in Fort Collins in 2008. The de facto bottom half of the conference—Wyoming, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico—all come to Provo. A few of these games (i.e. most if not all of the home games) might be easy wins, and none of them will be entirely out of the Cougars’ reach. But playing at TCU and Utah is never easy, and the difficulty is compounded when breaking in a new QB.

If I had to make a (somewhat conservative) prediction at this point, I would say the Cougars go 8-4 in 2010, with losses to Washington, Florida State, TCU and Utah. This is the most rebuilding BYU has had to do in one year since 2007—but in that year, the Cougars went undefeated in conference and won 11 games. In other words, I would be more surprised if BYU won fewer than 8 games in 2010 than if they won more.

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