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July 16, 2009
THE SCHEME: BYU runs a spread offense with multiple formations that could include three receivers, a fullback or an H-back.
STAR POWER: Through two seasons as a starter, senior QB Max Hall has thrown for 7,805 yards, seventh in school history. Before the season is done, Hall could be second, behind only Ty Detmer (15,031 yards). Currently in second is John Beck, with 11,021 yards. Hall averaged a bit more than 300 passing yards per game last season and completed 69.2 percent of his passes. Having a Mackey Award candidate in TE Dennis Pitta (1,083 yards in '08) will help Hall's production once again. Pitta – who is Hall's brother-in-law (they married sisters) – has All-America credentials.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: BYU returns only four offensive starters, but most open spots will be filled by returning players with significant experience. Still, G/T Jesse Taufi, a junior college transfer who redshirted last season, and redshirt freshman T/G Braden Hansen will press for time on the line.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Losing WR Austin Collie (1,538 receiving yards, 15 touchdowns) early to the NFL will hurt, but sophomore McKay Jacobson could help ease the sting of Collie's loss. Jacobson is returning from a Mormon mission in Japan. As a true freshman in 2006, Jacobson had 547 receiving yards and averaged 19.5 yards per catch. Backup TE Andrew George also should play a bigger role, which would further help BYU make up for Collie's absence.
STRONGEST AREA: For the third consecutive season, BYU will be solid in the backfield. Hall could throw for around 4,000 yards. RB Harvey Unga returns after rushing for 1,132 yards, catching 42 passes and scoring 15 touchdowns. The Cougars also will have veteran FB Manase Tonga, who was an academic casualty last season. Tonga is a solid blocker, good receiver and tough between-the-tackles runner.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: While there's a lot of skill-position talent, the Cougars must replace four starters on the line. Rivals.com Freshman All-America T Matt Reynolds, who didn't allow a sack during the regular season, is the only returning starter. New C R.J. Willing, a senior, has nine career starts. The new line will be big – all five projected starters weigh more than 300 pounds – but how quickly can it jell?
THE SCHEME: BYU uses a 3-4 set. Under coach Bronco Mendenhall – a former defensive coordinator – the defense has been a strength, but the Cougars struggled in the second half of last season. In their final seven games, the Cougars gave up at least 31 points five times.
STAR POWER: E Jan Jorgensen's numbers were down after recording 14 sacks as a sophomore in 2007. Facing double-teams all season, Jorgensen managed just five sacks – along with two forced fumbles and 11 quarterback hurries – last season. Still, he was able to set the Mountain West career sacks record of 24.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: With both starting safeties gone, true freshman Craig Bills will get a chance for significant playing time. The hard-hitting Bills was a four-star recruit. Redshirt freshman CB Garrett Nicholson also should get a chance to show off his talents. BYU lacks depth at corner, and Nicholson should press for a starting job.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: SS Andrew Rich played extensively as a sophomore last season, earning three starts late in the year. He is the favorite to take over the starting role. He's another big hitter who could make an impact in a rebuilt secondary.
STRONGEST AREA: Going into spring practice, BYU coaches expected the front seven to anchor the defense. That still could be the case, but the Cougars won't have as much depth as they thought. After spring practice, starting NT Russell Tialavea decided to leave school to go on a mission, backup LB Matt Ah You transferred and backup E Bernard Afutiti was ruled academically ineligible. BYU still has five returning starters in the front seven, including Jorgensen and LB Matt Bauman, the leading tackler last season. T Romney Fuga, who started in 2006 before leaving for a mission, is back and expected to provide depth.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Scott Johnson is the only returning starter in the secondary, and he's moving from cornerback to free safety. The Cougars are looking for more production out of the defensive backs, as BYU had just nine interceptions last season; only UNLV had fewer picks (seven) in the conference. BYU will look to two junior college transfers and a converted wide receiver to bolster its depth at cornerback. Brandon Howard started at cornerback last season but withdrew from school for personal reasons in the spring and seems unlikely to return. If Howard does come back, he will start.
K Mitch Payne returns after going 10-of-14 on field-goal attempts, none longer than 46 yards. The Cougars will replace punter C.J. Santiago with freshman Riley Stephenson. WR O'Neill Chambers is a capable return man. The Cougars will miss Collie on kickoff returns; he averaged 27.5 yards on 18 attempts. Coverage units were good last season, and that should continue.
In four seasons, Mendenhall has returned BYU to national respectability. The Cougars finished with double-digit wins for the third consecutive season, and only Boise State, Florida, Oklahoma, USC and Ohio State have better records in that span. Helping him are four assistants who are BYU alums, including offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who played for the 1984 national title team. With Anae on the staff, BYU's offense consistently has been one of the nation's best.
BYU's opener won't help a program looking to regain momentum. The Cougars open against Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas, meaning a three-game losing streak (counting the 48-24 loss to Utah and a 31-21 loss to Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl) is possible. It would be BYU's longest losing streak since losing the last two of the 2005 season and the 2006 opener. The Cougars' home opener on Sept. 19 isn't much easier – a visit from Florida State. On a positive note, BYU gets conference foes TCU and Utah at home after losing to both on the road last season by a combined 80-31. And of the six games away from home, just one (Oklahoma) is against a team that went bowling last season.
Last season's 10-3 record was a mild disappointment, which says something about the attitude Mendenhall has in place in Provo. BYU hoped to land in a BCS game but instead finished third in the Mountain West. Meanwhile, the Cougars watched archrival Utah go undefeated and play in a BCS game for the second time and saw TCU beat 12-0 Boise State in a bowl game. This season, the Cougars should contend for the league title and could win their third crown in four seasons. They should have the best offense in the league; they just need to find a defense to match.