Entering his 29th season as head coach at BYU, 69-year-old LaVell Edwards is facing perhaps the most challenging seasons of his career.
However, with 27 winning seasons, 20 conference titles, 22 bowl appearances and a National Championship under his belt, why would he ever think of stopping or slowing down now? As far as Edwards is concerned, more glory lies ahead.
"This is certainly one of the most challenging and exciting schedules we've had since I've been at BYU," Edwards says. "In addition to a tough Conference schedule, we'll be playing several of the top teams in the country and traveling to the East Coast three different times. With a schedule like this, we've certainly got our work cut out for us, but we're really looking forward to it."
During the 2000 season, the Cougars will travel nearly 11,000 miles with three trips to the East Coast, in addition to their Conference road schedule. Throughout the year, BYU will travel to Jacksonville, Fla. (vs. Florida State), Virginia, Air Force, Syracuse, Colorado State and Utah. All totaled, BYU will compete against six different teams, which participated in bowl games during the 1999 season, including Florida State which defeating Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to win the National Championship. Overall, BYU's list of opponents combined for 82 wins last season, including Mississippi State, which posted a 10-2 mark, capped by a 17-7 Peach Bowl victory over Clemson.
For the first time since Brian Mitchell took over as the cornerbacks coach in 1995, BYU underwent changes to the coaching staff during the off season. Long-time assistant coach Lance Reynolds will begin his first season as the offensive coordinator, after serving 17 seasons as an offensive assistant. Former lineman Mike Empey also joined the staff and will be responsible for coaching the offensive tackles and tight ends.
"Lance has been an integral part of our coaching staff for the past 17 years and we're very pleased to have Mike join our program," Edwards says. "Both Lance and Mike have taken advantage of their respective coaching assignments, which have prepared them for their new responsibilities. I feel extremely confident in their abilities and know they will do a great job. So far, things seem to be working out well."
Defensive coordinator Ken Schmidt was elevated to assistant head coach and will continue his duties as the defensive coordinator. Tom Ramage will continue coaching the defensive line and special teams, while Brian Mitchell will continue working with the corners and Barry Lamb with the safeties. In addition to his duties as the team's recruiting coordinator, Chris Pella will begin the 2000 season working with the receivers and kickers, while Robbie Bosco will work with the quarterbacks. Reynolds will instruct the running backs, while Roger French will work primarily with the interior offensive linemen.
In addition to making changes in the coaching staff, the Cougars will also make a change at quarterback this season. Lost to graduation is All Conference performer Kevin Feterik, who led the Cougars with 3,554 yards passing and 25 TD completions. BYU will look to one of three possible replacements for the three-year starter, including Bret Engemann, Charlie Peterson and Brandon Doman.
"I feel really good about all three quarterbacks," Edwards says. "They all played well during the spring, and are only getting better. The only thing we lack in this area will be experience. The three of them have worked hard in every aspect and all have good arms. I really think we will be fine at quarterback."
Engemann returned to the BYU camp last fall as a true freshman after serving an LDS Church mission. The 6-4, 220-pound slinger played in six games on the season, including an appearance in the Motor City Bowl. Engemann completed 3-of-4 passes for 13 yards during the regular season and was credited with 6-of-11 attempts for 45 yards during the Cougars' postseason bowl appearance. Engemann, who has been noted for his size and impressive arm strength, chalked up 248 yards passing during the Blue/White spring game, completing 12-of-23 passes, including two touchdowns. Charlie Peterson, a 6-2, 190-pound junior made two brief appearances during the 1999 campaign, producing six yards on one rushing attempt. During the Motor City Bowl, Peterson gained an additional four yards rushing and completed 4-of-7 passes for 50 yards. During the spring game, Peterson accounted for 250 yards passing on 18-of-30 attempts, including one touchdown strike and one interception. Doman also saw limited action at quarterback in 1999, but was used as a receiver in key situations. Doman threw just two passes on the season, but was credited with five carries for 32 yards and nine receptions for 83 yards. During the Blue/White game, Doman completed 13-of-23 attempts for 122 yards.
"Through the spring, one guy would take a step up, then another would, then the next," Edwards says. "My gut feeling is we'll need more than one of them during the season. But, eventually, one will emerge."
After offseason surgery on his knee and shoulder, the Cougars are expecting the return of Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year and Sporting News Freshman All-American Luke Staley at running back. Staley was the nation's leading freshman in 1999, averaging 9.75 points per game. The 6-2, 210-pound bruiser played in just eight regular-season games, scoring at least one touchdown in each appearance. Staley tallied 432 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns and added 339 receiving yards, including two touchdown receptions.
"Things are a little iffy at running back right now with the uncertainty of Luke's condition," Edwards says. "If Luke comes back totally healed from both surgeries, that will be a big plus."
The Cougars' leading rusher from the 1999 season, Fahu Tahi, will sit out the 2000 season to serve an LDS Church mission. Tahi led BYU with 445 yards on 102 carries as a freshman, scoring two touchdowns. Senior fullback Kalani Sitake will return in 2000 after breaking his ankle in last year's game at Wyoming. Sitake had 124 yards receiving and 109 yards rushing for the Cougars as a junior and played a key roll in pass protection.
"Kalani's return will be a big plus. If he can come back and contribute the way he was before he got hurt, we'll be fine," Edwards says.
BYU will also look for contributions from incoming freshman Marcus Whalen, as well as junior college transfer Brian McDonald. McDonald rushed for over 2,000 yards at Cerritos JC, including 1,032 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. Whalen produced over 1,900 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at Thomas Stone High School.
"Hopefully these guys can come in here and contribute like Luke and Fahu did a year ago," Edwards says. "A lot of it will depend on just how healthy Luke and Kalani will be and how far along these new guys are when they get here."
Other players expected to contribute at the running back and full back positions this season are Mike Nielson, a transfer from Utah State, Will Snowden, Paul Peterson and Ned Stearns. All four players made significant contributions during the spring and should expect to see an increasing amount of playing time during the 2000 season.
Returning for the Cougars on the offensive line will be senior tackle Ford Poston, senior guard Kam Valgardson, junior center Jason Scukanec, junior tackle Aaron McCubbins, sophomore guard Isaac Herring and sophomore tackle Dustin Rykert. All six saw significant playing time at their respective positions during the 1999 season and are expected to play a valuable rolel in beefing up the Cougars' pass protection efforts this season. Added to the mix are junior guard Teag Whiting, who redshirted the 1999 season after transferring from Ricks College, and returning missionaries Scott Jackson and Ben Archibald. Both Jackson, a 6-4, 270 pound redshirt freshman, and Archibald, a 6-4, 280-pound sophomore, gained valuable experience by participating in spring drills.
"I think our offensive line will be improved," Edwards says. "With the development of Isaac (Herring) and Dustin (Rykert), combined with the experience of some of our returning players and a couple returning missionaries, we should be fine. I've been impressed with their improvement over the spring and feel we're on the right track with this group."
The experienced BYU receiving corps will be headlined this season by All America and Biletnikoff Award candidate Margin Hooks. The 6-0, 190 pound receiver led the Cougars last season with a career high 1,067 yards on 60 receptions. The All-MWC first-team performer also recorded seven touchdown receptions, including a season-high 77-yard TD reception against Utah in the Cougars' final regular-season game. Hooks has accumulated 2,123 yards receiving over his career and needs just 944 yards to become the Cougars' all-time leading receiver.
"Margin is very talented," Edwards says. "He brings so many different things to this team. His speed, ability, leadership and experience will all play a very valuable role for us this year."
The Cougars also return seniors Ben Horton and Jonathan Pittman. Pittman ranked second behind Hooks with 478 yards and four TDs in 1999, while Horton added 472 yards and two touchdowns. The trio of Hooks, Horton and Pittman produced over 2,000 of the Cougars' 3,500 receiving yards.
"Pittman and Horton played well for us last year," Edwards says. "Pittman came in here from junior college with some pretty high expectations. Both he and Ben were a significant part of our offense last year and will make us that much better with their added experience."
Mike Rigell, who spent last season at Foothill JC, returns to the BYU lineup and will add speed and experience to the talented corps of receivers. BYU will also look to junior receiver Soren Halladay, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, as well as returning missionaries Toby Christensen, Jason Kukahiko and David Christensen.
"There's no doubt we will be experienced at wide receiver," Edwards says. "Adding Rigell to the list, as well as the guys coming back from missions, I think we're going to be pretty good."
Senior Tevita Ofahengaue leads a group of tight ends who are expected to play an integral part in the revitalized BYU offense. Ofahengaue played in all 11 regular-season games for the Cougars, recording 284 yards on 21 receptions. Ofahengaue also produced two touchdowns for the Cougars, while junior Doug Jolley chalked up 65 yards on six receptions, including three TDs. Gabriel Reid, brother of NFL player Spencer Reid, is also expected to make a significant contribution at tight end this season.
"Our tight ends are very good," Edwards says. "We have three guys in here who can play. They all have great speed and are all getting better at blocking. I think we are going to be pretty solid."
Ranked as one of the top defensive lines in the Mountain West Conference last season, the BYU defensive front is expected to be even better in 2000. Tackles Chris Hoke and Hans Olsen return in the middle, with Setema Gali, Jr. listed as one of two starters at the end. Hoke and Olsen combined for 84 tackles last season, including 19 tackles for a combined loss of 90 yards. Gali produced 39 tackles for the Cougars, including seven sacks. All totaled, the three returning starters accounted for 16 of BYU's 35 sacks on the season. Chris Watkins, a 6-2, 285-pound sophomore is also expected to see action at the tackle position during the 2000 season, as well as 6-1, 275-pound Jimmy Betham.
"With all those guys, we will be able to rotate around at tackle," Edwards says. "Each of them have a lot of experience and are good players. The only thing is, we really don't have a lot of depth. If we can stay away from injury, we will be solid there."
Brett Keisel, a speedy 6-6, 260-pound junior returns to the BYU roster after spending a year at the junior-college ranks and is expected to fill the gap left by the graduating Byron Frisch. Keisel made an immediate impact on the defensive line during spring drills, recording two sacks, two pass breakups and two hurries during the annual Blue/White spring game. Keisel will be joined by Ryan Denney, a 6-7, 270-pound junior who gained valuable playing time at defensive end last season. Denney, Keisel and Gali are expected to share equal time at defensive end.
"Our defensive line will be very quick," Edwards says. "I think the addition of Brett Keisel will help pick up the slack of losing Byron Frisch. Adding Keisel in with Gali and Denney will give us three very quick and very good football players."
At first glance, the BYU linebacker roster looks packed with size, speed, experience and all the ability necessary to fill the void left by All American Rob Morris. However, due to some key injuries during last season and the spring, the Cougar coaching staff has been left to take a wait-and see approach to the season.
Justin Ena seems to be a sure-thing at the strong side backer position. Ena, a second-team All-Mountain West performer last year produced 49 tackles as a freshman and has continued his dominance through the spring. Isaac Kelley was credited with 34 tackles last season and is expected to make an impact at the weak-side position as a junior. Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounds senior middle linebacker Josh Lowe. A tremendous athlete who registered 46 tackles last season, Lowe began spring practice in rare form, but was forced to hang up the pads after suffering from herniated discs in his lower back. Following an offseason of rigorous rehabilitation, the BYU coaching staff remains optimistic regarding Lowe's return. Jeff Holtry, who is recovering from a torn ACL, is expected to be back and playing at 100 percent before practice begins in August and should see time at middle linebacker. Holtry, a transfer from Michigan, gained valuable experience at middle linebacker last season after Morris was sidelined with a groin injury.
"If we can get all our guys back, we will be solid at linebacker," Edwards says. "Ena, Lowe, Holtry and Kelly are all solid players, who bring a great deal of experience to our defense. If healthy, all four will contribute at linebacker. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
The Cougars will also look to develop the skills of a couple young players in Colby Bockwoldt, Mike Tanner and Ammon Mauga. Bockwoldt, a 6-1, 210-pound redshirt freshman is a little on the light side, but can run well and is very competitive. Mauga, a 6-0, 215-pound redshirt freshman, Paul Walkenhorst, a 6-5, 230-pound freshman, and Tanner, a 6-1, 240-pound freshman, should each compete for playing time during the season.
"The combination of getting our guys healthy and the development of these young guys, could make this a pretty good group of players," Edwards says.
Jared Lee (BYU Photo)
Headlining the safeties will be senior Jared Lee. Perhaps the most under rated defensive player in the entire Mountain West Conference, Lee led the Cougars with 96 tackles last season, including an impressive 67 solo takedowns. The 6-0, 210-pound senior was equally impressive in pass defense, recording a team-leading four interceptions and eight pass break-ups.
"Jared is in a league of his own," Edwards says. "He is an outstanding football player and should have been All-Conference last year -- there's no doubt. What else can you say about him?"
At the other safety position, senior Elan Edwards and sophomore Dustin Staley produced a combined 68 tackles last season and are both expected to contribute to the Cougar secondary in 2000. The Cougars will also return senior Tyson Smith, who started three games last year, but left the team during mid-season. Other players expected to add to the Cougars' depth are 6-1, 195-pound sophomore Michael Madsen and 6-0, 195-pound redshirt freshman Kurt Elliott.
Gone are Brian Gray and Heshimu Robertson. Also, Jernaro Gilford is expected to miss the season. BYU will have to hope history has a way of repeating itself. In the past, the Cougars have dipped in to the JUCO ranks and have come up with the likes of Omarr Morgan, Tim McTyer and Gray, just to name a few. This year, the Cougars will look to junior college transfers Derrus Wilson and Danny Phillips to fill an immediate need at corner. In addition, 5-7, 160-pound Michael Lafitte, who has been in the program for a year after transferring from Phoenix JC, is expected to compete for playing time at corner.
Wilson, a 5-9, 180-pound transfer from Blinn JC, was a first team all district performer, recording 27 tackles and 11 pass break-ups. Phillips, a 6-1, 190-pound transfer from Cerritos JC, was an All-Mission (Northern Division) Conference selection and finished his sophomore season with 33 tackles, including 19 solo takedowns. As a freshman, Phillips posted 37 tackles.
It is expected BYU will convert incoming freshman Isiah Joiner from running back to cornerback. At Sealy High School, Joiner ran for over 2,000 yards as a senior.
"If we get lucky with Derrus and Danny, like we have in the past with a few guys who have come in here and contributed from the start, we should be solid at cornerback," Edwards says.
Anchoring the special teams is senior kicker Owen Pochman. The 6-0, 180-pound left-footer holds the BYU career scoring record and posted some impressive stats as a junior. An All-America and Lou Groza Award candidate as a senior, Pochman has produced 38 field goals over the past two seasons, including an impressive 20-of-26 field goals from 40-49 yards.
"Owen is pretty much in a class by himself," Edwards says. "There is no doubt he is an All-America candidate."
With the graduation of punter Jesse Sowards, the Cougars will look to either Aaron Edmonds or Matt Payne to take over punting duties. Edmonds, a 5-11, 185-pound JUCO transfer from Ricks College averaged 38.7 yards per punt during the Blue/White game in the spring, while Payne, a 6-4, 215-pound freshman, registered a 43.7 average during the annual spring scrimmage.
"Both punters are doing a nice job," Edwards says. "Edmonds is real fluid in his motion and kicks well. Payne, I think, has a chance to be a good kicker down the road. He hasn't quite got his leg back after serving a mission. Hopefully he'll be ready to go this fall. I'm certain one of those two guys will be punting for us this fall."
Rigell will step in to return punts and kicks, while Paul Peterson is expected to team up with Rigell on kick returns. Holtry has been listed as the starting deep snapper, while Rykert has been penciled in as the backup.
"Jeff is an outstanding deep snapper, as well as Dustin," Edwards says. "Doug Harding did a nice job for us for a couple years and I think either one of these guys will have the ability to pick up where Doug left off."