After turning in a 6-5 record in 1997, BYU rebounded in 1998 to produce nine regular-season wins and an invitation to the Liberty Bowl - the team's 21st bowl appearance since 1974. This season, the Cougars welcome back a total of 43 lettermen, including 12 starters, who are looking ahead to the 1999 season, as well as the beginning of the Mountain West Conference era with a full head of steam. For what promises to be an exciting season, complete with the resurgence of an air-it out style offense, a defense sure to maintain its national ranking from a year ago and participation in a new conference, the Cougars are ready to roll into 1999. Get on board!
"We have the ability to be a good ball team," BYU head coach LaVell Edwards says. "A lot of it depends on getting certain players back and filling some holes, but the development of our quarterbacks has been good, our wide receivers are much better, we're solid at linebacker and we're quicker on the defensive line."
Ever since last season ended, the quarterback debate has been brewing at BYU. However, unlike years past, this year's speculations revolve around the backup to starter Kevin Feterik. After finishing the season with career-high numbers and leading the Cougars to their best record since 1996, Feterik is all but assured of the starting roll. The senior from Los Alamitos, Calif., completed 202-of-336 passes for 2,718 yards, producing a career-high 16 touchdowns. With a 140.2 rating, Feterik finished the season as the WAC's top rated passer in 1998.
"Kevin did a very nice job last year," Edwards said. "He has a lot of experience and will be a key element to our offense."
With Feterik's position intact, those expected to contend for the backup job include sophomore Brandon Doman, true freshman Bret Engemann, sophomore Charlie Peterson. Doman completed 22 passes for 315 yards, averaging 14.3 yards per completion during the spring, while Engemann turned some heads with his size and arm strength during the spring. At 6-5, 218-pounds, Engemann is fresh off an LDS Church mission and has been waiting since 1996 to suit up for the Cougars. Peterson also caught the attention of the coaching staff over the spring, earning a starting roll in the Blue/White scrimmage game. The 6-2, 190-pound sophomore was 13-of-24 for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the Blue/White game. Throughout the spring, Peterson led all quarterbacks with 422 yards on 28 completions and four touchdowns.
Add to the mix one of the nation's top high school prospects in 6-5, 218-pound Matt Berry. The incoming freshman from Redmond, Wash., brings an impressive list of accolades to BYU and will look to compete for playing time this fall as well.
"I can say we'll be better at throwing the football," Edwards says. "However, it may take us throughout the summer before we come up with our No. 2 guy. I don't think anybody is better than anyone else. Whoever gets the breaks is going to play."
Perhaps the biggest questions mark in the Cougar offense this year will be at running back. With the loss of both Ronney Jenkins and Junior Mahe, Kalani Sitake returns as the lone starter. The 6-0, 250-pound bruiser ranked fifth on the BYU roster in 1998, totaling 40 yards on 13 carries.
BYU will also look to 1997 WAC Freshman of the Year, Jaron Dabney. The 5-9, 180-pound sophomore returns to the Cougar lineup after a year's absence. Dabney averaged 6.2 yards per carry as a freshman and produced a combined 1,046 yards as a kick and punt returner.
Others who are expected to contribute during the season include 6-1, 235-pound senior Donny Atuaia, 6-2, 220-pound Utah State transfer Mike Nielsen and highly-touted incoming freshmen Fahu Tahi and Luke Staley.
"It's going to be crucial to get Jaron back," offensive coordinator Norm Chow says. "The thing about him is he can fill a couple of rolls where we're not settled. Obviously you'd plug him right in as the kick-return man."
Margin Hooks (BYU Photo)
Leading the corp of BYU receivers is junior Margin Hooks. The 5-11, 190-pound speedster led the Cougars in receiving last season, despite and offense that was geared more towards the run. Hooks had 49 receptions for 732 yards, including touchdown receptions of 80 and 83 yards. Hooks is the fastest BYU receiver with 4.35 speed in the 40 and has a combined bench press and squat of more than 850 pounds.
"He's got a lot of speed, real good hands and can catch the ball real well," says Chow. "With the change in our offensive scheme this season, Margin becomes a very important part of it all."
Hooks will be joined by BYU's Liberty Bowl MVP Ben Horton. The 5-11, 170 pound junior ranked third on the BYU roster last season with 25 receptions for 468 yards, averaging 18.7 yards per catch.
Michael Westbrook, Soren Halladay and junior college transfer Jonathan Pittman will join Hooks and Horton in the regular rotation.
"This year , we've got a much better chance to look like the BYU offense people are used to seeing," Chow says. "These guys are a year older, wiser and better. We're much better all the way around."
At tight end, the Cougars return both starters from last season. Tevita Ofahengaue started 10 of the Cougars' regular-season games, while Carlos Nuno picked up two starts. Both players enter the 1999 campaign with valuable experience and with the resurgence of the shot-gun, look to become more involved in the offense.
No matter how you break it down, the problem facing the BYU coach staff is how to replace the likes of John Tait and Joe Wong.
"The key is finding two tackles on the offensive line to replace John Tait and Joe Wong," says Edwards. "I think if we can get that done, or make some progress in that area, we could be pretty solid."
With Matt Johnson and John Skiba returning at the two guard positions and Jimmy Richards at center (6-3, 305), BYU will look to juniors Shane Magalei (6-3, 290), Ford Poston (6-6, 300), sophomore Aaron McCubbins (6-4, 275), and freshman Dustin Rykert (6-7, 290) to fill the holes vacated by Tait and Wong at tackle.
"Basically, we've got four guys who have the potential to man those two spots," offensive line coach Roger French says. "It's going to be a dog fight for those positions. But that's the way to have it. Everybody seems to work harder."
When you look at the list of linebackers lost to graduation, one might think this would be a weak link in the BYU defense. Nothing could be further from the truth. Enter All-America and Butkus Award candidate Rob "Freight Train" Morris and his list of comrades, who make up one of the top linebacking corps in the Mountain West Conference. After passing on the NFL, Morris returns for his senior season as the Cougars' top defensive player from 1998. The 6-3, 245-pound senior led BYU with 147 tackles, including 114 unassisted and 33 assisted takedowns.
Michigan transfer Jeff Holtry will look to take over weak-side linebacker duties, while sophomore Justin Ena will take over the strong-side position. Holtry a 6-3, 245-pound junior and member of the 1997 national championship team at Michigan, along with Morris and Ena (6-3, 265) are strong, fast, agile and provide a physical and intimidating presence behind the defensive line.
Andrew Fales is expected to play a backup roll to Morris, while junior Chris Jones, Josh Lowe and freshman Chris Stevens will look to compete for playing time at the weak-side and stong-side positions.
"We lost two outside linebackers in Brad Martin and Derik Stevenson," defensive coordinator Ken Schmidt said. "We're trying to solidify the outside positions. And I think we have been able to do that. We will be real solid against the run and adequate against the pass."
After starting one game at strong safety in 1998 and seven in 1997, it seems likely senior Tyler Nelson will receive the starting nod in 1999. Alongside Nelson, junior college transfer Jared Lee and Colorado transfer Elan Edwards will be battling for the starting position. However, according to safeties coach Barry Lamb, it is possible for incoming freshman Kurt Elliot and Alex Farris to come in and contend for playing time as well.
"Tyler is the only one that has played in a game situation for us," Lamb said. "Everyone else will be brand new this season and everyone will be competing for the other starting position. It's too soon to tell who will start, but I believe each will have the ability to contribute right off the bat. We'll just have to wait and see."
Seniors Brian Gray and Heshi Robertson will start at the cornerback slots, while York Frierson, a junior college transfer is expected to see plenty of playing time as well.
"Frierson is a lot like Gray and Robertson," cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell says. "York will push both Brian and Heshi and create competition immediately."
Also returning is redshirt Kevon Morton and Dustin Staley, who played as a freshman before serving and LDS Church mission.
A key element to the Cougar defensive line is 6-5, 270-pound defensive end Byron Frisch. As the only returning regular starter on the D-line, Frisch tallied 70 tackles last season, including 13 tackles for a loss, a team-leading 14 hurries and five sacks. Although Frisch is most accustomed to the right end, the Cougars may move him to the left side.
"We have to try and find ways to take advantage of his speed," defensive line coach Tom Ramage says. "Byron has a great attitude and he's a real aggressive player who works hard. I really believe he has the tools to be a very good defensive lineman."
The Cougars will need to replace Issiah Magalei, Ed Kehl and Daren Yancey. What was lost in size, BYU will have plenty of speed and athletic ability to make up the difference. Hans Olsen, a 6-5, 285-pound junior is expected to fill the vacancy left by Yancey's departure, while Setema Gali will fill the hole left by Kehl at the opposite end of Frisch.
Junior Chris Hoke (6-2, 285) will start at tackle, while redshirt freshman Chris Watkins (6-2, 285), Andrew Nash (6-4, 295) and Ryan Denney (6-7, 265) will compete for playing time.
Others expected to push Frisch and Gali for playing time at defensive end include Brett Keisel (6-4, 250) and T.J. Sitake (6-3, 245).