Coming off their third 11-2 season in the past four years under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the BYU Cougars look to again challenge for national accolades and the Mountain West Conference title in 2010.
The Cougars finished 2009 ranked No. 12 in the national polls after a 44-20 victory over No. 16 Oregon State in the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas. The win gave BYU its third bowl victory in the last four years—something last accomplished at BYU from 1981-84—as the program continues to rank among the best in the nation under Mendenhall’s leadership. Since taking over a BYU program in 2005 that had just gone through three losing seasons, Mendenhall has guided BYU to five straight bowl invitations, two outright Mountain West Conference championships and consistent national top-25 rankings.
In fact, BYU is one of just six programs to be ranked in the final ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, Associated Press Top-25 and final BCS Standings each of the past four seasons, and one of just five to win 10 or more games each of the past four years. Only four other programs—Boise State (49-4), Florida (48-7), Texas (45-8), and Ohio State (44-8)—have topped BYU’s 43-9 record amassed over that span.
In 2010 the Cougars hope to build on the consistency achieved in the program under Mendenhall while replacing three-year starting quarterback Max Hall, consensus All-American tight end Dennis Pitta and all-time leading rusher Harvey Unga. The Cougars will play a schedule that includes nonconference home games with Washington and Nevada and road contests at Florida State and Utah State. The challenging MWC slate includes road games at TCU and Utah, ranked No. 6 and No. 18, respectively, in 2009.
Among 20 offensive and 23 defensive lettermen returning, the 2010 Cougars return 12 starters and seven other players with starting experience. In addition, BYU’s specialists are poised to help make a difference as the team’s starting punter, place kicker and return specialists are back as well. Listed below is a position-by-position outlook of the 2010 team heading into fall camp.
The biggest question mark entering 2010 for BYU is who will step in to take over at quarterback given three-year starter Max Hall’s departure. Four talented candidates are vying for the opportunity to lead BYU’s attack. Hall’s backup in 2009, junior Riley Nelson, appeared in seven games last year in late action, completing 7-of-10 passes and one touchdown with a strong 186.16 efficiency rating while running for 122 yards (5.8 ypc) and three touchdowns. A transfer with NCAA FBS starting experience, Nelson started the final eight games as a freshman at Utah State in 2006 prior to an LDS Church mission, completing 55 percent of his passes for 925 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for 290 yards. He was a Parade All-American and Deseret News Mr. Football for Utah coming out of high school in 2005. True freshman Jake Heaps out of Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash., enrolled in January and showed during spring practices that he has the skills to compete for the job in his first year in the program. Ranked the No. 1 quarterback in the nation by Scout.com and the top pro-style signal caller by Rivals.com, Heaps led Skyline High School to three state championships while posting a 40-2 record as a three-year starter. He amassed 9,994 yards passing and completed 63 percent of his passes while connecting on 114 touchdowns with only 18 interceptions. Including 30 rushing touchdowns, he totaled 144 scores overall during his three-year career. Sophomore James Lark (2005 Utah 3A MVP out of Pine View High School in St. George, Utah) returned from a mission to participate in spring ball, while redshirt freshman Jason Munns (2006 Big Nine Co-Player of the Year out of Southridge High School in Kennewick, Wash.) returned to the team after returning from his mission in May.RUNNING BACK
With three-year starter Harvey Unga withdrawing from school in April and senior fullback Manase Tonga graduating, the BYU backfield will lean on the services of several experienced lettermen and some talented newcomers in 2010. Unga led the MWC with 1,087 yards in 2009 to become BYU’s all-time leading rusher with 3,455 career yards gained on the ground, while Tonga was an effective blocker, receiver and team leader. Looking to help fill the void are returning contributors JJ Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya. The two junior backs ran for 248 (5.5 ypc) and 199 (3.6 ypc) yards, respectively, last year in supporting roles while scoring five touchdowns collectively on the ground. Di Luigi added 270 yards and four touchdowns as a receiver while Kariya was also an effective weapon in the pass game with 186 receiving yards and two scores. Kariya, a north-and-south runner, and Di Luigi, a shifty, make-you-miss runner, are both well prepared for increased roles in 2010. Both backs were productive for the Cougars last year in Unga’s absence, including the team’s season-opening win over No. 3 Oklahoma with Unga sidelined with an injury. Mike Hague, who played as a freshman prior to his mission before being injured last year, will lend his experience to the lineup. Several others, including some talented incoming freshmen, could also challenge for time on the field. Among the newcomers, mid-year enrollee Joshua Quezada impressed during spring practices as the team’s top ground gainer.WIDE RECEIVER
The Cougars return the entire depth chart at the wide receiver positions. Texas-product McKay Jacobson, who totaled 528 receiving yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2006 prior to serving an LDS Church mission, ranked behind only Pitta in receiving yards as a sophomore in 2009 despite missing four games due to an injury. The speedy receiver totaled 556 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 24.2 yards per catch to rank No. 4 in the nation among all receivers who averaged at least one catch per game. He was one of 10 players in the nation with two or more receptions over 70 yards in 2009. O’Neill Chambers started on the other side and returns for his junior campaign after contributing 376 yards and one touchdown in 2009. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound wideout is a physical player who has been a primary return specialist the past two years as well. Senior Luke Ashworth and junior Spencer Hafoka totaled 387 and 155 receiving yards, respectively, last year while combining for five touchdowns as key players in the rotation. Several other talented players will also challenge for time, including redshirt freshman Cody Hoffman (6-4, 200) and incoming freshman Ross Apo (6-4, 190).TIGHT END
BYU boasted arguably the strongest tight end combination in the country last year in consensus All-American Dennis Pitta and second-team All-Mountain West Conference standout Andrew George. With those two players preparing for futures in the NFL, BYU will miss their collective experience; however, Cougar coaches have a stable of talented players competing for playing time at a position utilized well in the BYU attack. Two freshmen who redshirted behind Pitta and George last season—Mike Muehlmann (6-4, 227) and Richard Wilson (6-2, 238)—are ready to make their impact, while two other recently returned missionaries—Devin Mahina (6-6, 225) and Marcus Mathews (6-4, 200)—showed during spring practices that they will be in the mix as freshman this fall. Wilson signed in 2009 as the nation’s No. 4 tight end prospect. Several other talented prospects, including Austin Holt (6-6, 230) and Bryan Sampson (6-4, 210), will compete in fall camp at a position BYU’s coaches feel will be very good again in 2010.OFFENSIVE LINE
One key to BYU’s offensive success last year was the outstanding play of its offensive line after replacing four starters. In 2010 the front line of BYU’s attack will return intact except for center R.J. Willing who was lost to graduation. All-America candidate and first-team All-MWC left tackle Matt Reynolds returns after earning Freshman All-America and All-Sophomore Team national accolades over his first two seasons. Other returning starters include junior guard Terence Brown (All-Sophomore Team honorable mention in 2009), sophomore guard Braden Hansen (Freshman All-American in 2009) and senior tackle Nick Alletto. Add to the mix senior guard/tackle Jason Speredon, who was a projected starter last year before a season-ending injury, and redshirt freshman center/guard Houston Reynolds, who was on the two-deep in fall camp before his own season-ending setback, and the Cougars should have a solid group up front. Other players returning who contributed last year include juniors Marco Thorson and Ryan Freeman, both able to play guard or center, and sophomore tackle Braden Brown, who earned two starts in 2009 after converting from tight end mid season. While several of the group missed part or all of spring practices while recovering from surgeries, the offensive line should be a strong unit for the Cougars in 2010 after a solid 2009 campaign.DEFENSIVE LINE
The Cougars will be replacing several starters on the defensive line but have some experienced players ready to step in. Gone is four-year starter Jan Jorgensen, who finished as the MWC’s all-time sack and tackle-for-loss leader, along with starting end Brett Denney (graduation) and part-time starting tackle Russell Tialavea (mission). The Cougars return junior Romney Fuga to anchor the nose position. Fuga (6-1, 295) started seven games after returning from a mission while sharing starts with Tialavea. A solid run stopper, Fuga will be joined by 2007 starter Eathyn Manumaleuna (6-2, 280), who is returning from his missionary service and could play either tackle or end for the Cougars. Two-year letterman Matt Putnam (6-6, 255) is poised to earn the starting nod at right end while three-year letter winner Vic So’oto (6-3, 265) has been impressive at left end in Jorgensen’s absence. Freshmen Thomas Bryson had a strong spring after a redshirt season in 2009 forced by injury. He is likely to make an impact in his first season on the field. Several incoming freshman are also expected to challenge for playing time and could become contributors on the defensive front. LINEBACKER BYU is replacing three of four starters in 2010 with the departure of inside linebackers Matt Bauman and Shawn Doman and outside backer Coleby Clawson. Junior Jordan Pendleton, who moved from defensive back to the strong-side linebacker position last year, returns as an athletic backer who is poised for a big season. In 2009 he totaled 52 tackles, six tackles for loss, three sacks and five quarterback hurries while adding a fumble recovery, an interception and three pass breakups. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Pendleton will be joined by some new faces in the linebacking corp. Senior Jordan Atkinson backed up Clawson in 2009 after transferring to BYU and is ready to step into a starting assignment. Other outside backers challenging will be junior Jameson Frazier (6-2, 201) and mid-year freshman enrollee Kyle Van Noy (6-4, 209). Inside, sophomore Brandon Ogletree (5-11, 222) and senior Shane Hunter (5-10, 236) saw action as reserves last year and will compete with some talented newcomers, including junior transfer Aveni Leung-Wai (6-1, 220), freshman Zac Stout (6-2, 220) and sophomore returned missionary Austen Jorgensen (6-3, 230). While the experience level will be missed at linebacker, the talent level should be strong. How well this group comes together will be an important factor in what many believe will be a stronger Cougar defensive unit in 2010.SECONDARY
BYU’s secondary is as deep and talented as any in recent memory. Three of four starters return with the free safety position being the one void the coaches will need to fill for 2010. Starting free safety Scott Johnson graduated and backup Craig Bills departed for a two-year mission. Returning is second-team All-MWC strong safety Andrew Rich. The senior led the team with 85 tackles, including 51 solo takedowns in 2009, and was sixth in the MWC with four interceptions for 91 return yards. The hard hitter forced two fumbles in BYU’s win over No. 3 Oklahoma and added 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack among his many statistical highlights. A strong leader, he could play either safety position in 2010. The corners return starters Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley. Both seniors in 2010, Logan was an SportsIllustrated.com All-America honorable mention in 2009 after ranking second (tied) nationally with 17 passes defended (including three picks), while Bradley was fourth on the team with 64 tackles and forced two fumbles with four pass breakups from his boundary corner role. Reserves who made solid contributions in 2009 include junior boundary corner Corby Eason, senior field corner Lee Aguirre and sophomore field corner Robbie Buckner. Each could play a strong role in the defensive backfield for BYU in 2010. Players expected to compete for time at safety include redshirt freshman Jray Galea’i, junior two-year lettermen Steven Thomas and Travis Uale as well as senior two-year letterman Landon Jaussi. Some talented newcomers will add to an experienced and solid unit for BYU in 2010.SPECIAL TEAMS
Senior kicker Mitch Payne, the MWC career leader, in returns for his final season as BYU’s primary field goal and PAT kicker. Last year he made 10-of-14 field goals and converted 59-of-61 PATs. Showing extreme consistency, he has had identical field-goal numbers in 2007, 2008 and 2009. He has a career long of 49 yards. The punting duties rest on the capable foot of a 2009 All-MWC honorable mention performer, returning starter Riley Stephenson. The versatile sophomore had a strong freshman campaign, averaging 41.3 yards per kick with eight boots resting inside the 20 and eight more booming longer than 50 yards when he could unleash his strong leg. His long punt traveled 60 yards entirely through the air until landing out of bounds to not allow a return from TCU all-league returner Jeremy Kerley. O’Neill Chambers is back as the team’s primary return specialist. He averaged 25.6 yards on kick returns to rank second in the MWC and No. 34 nationally last year after helping the Cougars rank No. 9 nationally in kickoff returns at 24.6 yards per return as a freshman. A fearless punt returner, Chambers had a long return of 43 yards to go along with his long kick return of 97 yards. Fellow receiver Spencer Hafoka (8.5 punt return average) as well as running back JJ Di Luigi (24.0 kick return average) also return along with the ever-dangerous option of McKay Jacobson as a return specialist. Redshirt freshman JD Falslev could be a strong punt returner as well. The Cougars should be well served in 2010 by its specialists.