For the first time since before every single player on this year's roster was born, BYU will be under the direction of a new head coach. Gone is the legendary stone-faced LaVell Edwards, who ended his 29-year career last season with his 28th non-losing season. But as BYU faithful stow their many memories of magical moments, engineered by one of college football's all-time winningest coaches, a new excitement is looming around the Mountain West.
Enter new head coach Gary Crowton and his highly-touted flair for high-flying offense and hard-nosed defense. Following two seasons as the offensive coordinator with the NFL's Chicago Bears and the man credited with re-building the football tradition at Louisiana Tech, Crowton returns to BYU, fulfilling a dream he envisioned as an undergraduate assistant under Edwards in the early 80s.
"This is a dream come true for me," Crowton said as he was named BYU's 13th head coach on Dec. 6, 2000. "I have always dreamed of coaching at BYU. To be able to follow in the footsteps of a legend like LaVell Edwards is both incredibly humbling and challenging. I pledge to BYU fans that I will devote my energy to continuing BYU's winning football tradition."
Though the 44-year-old coach has made significant changes to the program, including the addition of offensive coordinator Mike Borich, running backs coach Paul Tidwell and strength coach Jay Omer, Crowton will have little tinkering to do with a roster complete with 50 returning letterwinners, including 27 offensive and 23 defensive lettermen. BYU will welcome back seven returning offensive and six returning defensive starters, including seven all-MWC performers.
"We feel like we have a lot to work with in terms of personnel," Crowton said. "We will be using as much time as necessary to evaluate the players we have and identify our strengths. The philosophy won't be all that different. We'll have a few different looks and all new terminology, but the key will be to adapt to the talent we have and go from there."
Offensively, the Cougars will have the luxury of returning all five starters along the offensive line, including All-Conference performers Ben Archibald (RT), Dustin Rykert (LT), Jason Scukanec (C), Aaron McCubbins (RG) and second-year starter Teag Whiting (LG). In addition to five returning starters, who tip the scales at an average 6-foot-4, 296 pounds, BYU will look to returning lettermen and key recruits to add much-needed depth to the offensive line that will be coached this season by veteran assistant Lance Reynolds.
Isaac Herring returns for his senior season with plenty of playing experience, along with sophomore Scott Jackson, who saw limited action last season after suffering a preseason ankle injury. Vince Xanthos, a double transfer from Maryland and Minnesota, will join the offensive line, along with Dixie College All-American Quinn Christensen and Ricks College transfer Ryan Keele. All are listed as legitimate competitors for playing time in 2001 and are expected to see plenty of action. The Cougars will also benefit from a successful recruiting class, signing Travis Bright out of Queen Creek, Ariz. (Highland HS), Michael Nay from West Valley City, Utah (Cypress HS), and Jeff Rhea from South Jordan, Utah (Bingham HS).
"When we got here in December, we felt like the offensive line was a little thin," Crowton said. "We've tried to bulk it up a little and now we have some real depth. The offensive line will be very competitive. Without a solid offensive line, a team is really limited. Our depth and experience along the offensive line will definitely be one of the strengths of this team."
Prior to the start of the 2000 campaign, BYU coaches maintained it wouldn't matter who was listed as the starting quarterback. It was stated any of the three listed on the depth chart could come in and be successful. In fact, Edwards was quoted as saying, "It doesn't matter who we start, we're going to need all three to get through the season."
His words proved prophetic as the Cougars battled the injury bug early and often, calling upon all three quarterbacks to get the job done. Through it all, Bret Engemann, Charlie Peterson and Brandon Doman led BYU to its 28th straight non-losing season, posting a league-leading 3,295 yards passing, averaging over 274 yards per contest. BYU quarterbacks registered a Conference-best six individual 200-yard performances. In fact, all three quarterbacks recorded at least one 300-yard performance throughout the season, marking the first time three different BYU quarterbacks have posted 300-yard games in the same season.
Brandon Doman, who was credited with producing back-to-back wins to conclude the 2000 campaign, returns for his final season in Provo. After earning the starting job in the final two games of the 2000 campaign, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Salt Lake City native begins the 2001 season as the top quarterback on the BYU depth chart.
"Since Brandon finished last season as the starter, he'll be the number-one guy entering the season," Crowton said. "However, nothing is set in stone. We have four very talented guys who are going to be competing for the starting job, and right now, Brandon is our starter."
In five appearances as a junior, including two starts, Doman connected on 51-of-92 attempts for 782 yards. In his first-ever collegiate start, Doman led BYU to a 37-13 victory over New Mexico in Edwards' home finale. Doman became the first BYU quarterback to record over 300 yards passing and 50 yards rushing in the same game since Steve Young achieved the same feat against UTEP in 1983. An academic all-Conference performer, Doman picked up his second straight victory in the Cougars' final game of the season, defeating Utah , 34-27, in a dramatic come-from-behind performance. Trailing, 26-27, with 1:04 remaining, Doman connected with senior receiver Jonathan Pittman for a 34-yard pickup on fourth-and-13. On the very next play, Doman hooked up with Pittman again for a 36-yard completion. Following a Luke Staley nine-yard carry, Doman scrambled and found his way into the endzone with only :23 seconds remaining. The four-yard touchdown run and following two-point conversion gave BYU the seven-point victory.
Like Doman, Peterson returns for his final season at BYU. After Engemann went down at Air Force, Peterson came on and saw action in eight of BYU's 12 games, including five starts on the season. Peterson, a 6-foot-1, 198-pound senior tallied a team-leading 1,617 yards on the season, completing 149-of-260 attempts. In the Cougars' 38-14 win over Utah State, Peterson completed a game high 24-of-37 (.649) attempts for a career-high 324 yards and one touchdown. Peterson guided the Cougars on six scoring drives, including a touchdown-scoring drive in the third quarter that covered 90 yards on 16 plays and took nearly eight minutes off the clock. Just prior to the half, Peterson drove the Cougars on a no-huddle, three-play, 69 yard drive that concluded on a 21-yard touchdown completion to Mike Rigell. Against San Diego State, Peterson recorded his second straight 300-yard performance, connecting on 34-of-58 for 376 yards and one touchdown. In the Cougars' 19-7 win over Wyoming, Peterson racked up 225 yards on 22-of-34 attempts. Prior to his second-quarter interception against Wyoming, Peterson had made 164 pass attempts without an interception, passing Jim McMahon for the longest streak without an interception in BYU history. Peterson suffered a separated shoulder during spring drills, but has made strong recovery and is slated to compete at 100 percent.
Engemann, who was listed as the starter in the Cougars' season-opener last season against defending National Champion Florida State, will return for his junior season. Engemann started five games last season, but was sidelined after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury at Syracuse. Engemann underwent surgery to repair his shoulder and has been involved in a successful rehabilitation program throughout the off-season. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior completed 72-of-134 attempts for 896 yards and three touchdowns. After suffering a sprained knee against Florida State, Engemann quickly recovered to lead BYU to a 38-35 overtime win at Virginia the following week. For his efforts, Engemann was named the Chevrolet Player of the Game and garnered MWC Offensive Player-of-the-Week honors after connecting on 34-of-41 attempts for a career-high 447 yards and two touchdowns. In only his second start since his final game in high school some four years prior, Engemann completed 12 straight passes at the end of the game to cap the come-from-behind victory.
"Bret has been recovering nicely and working hard to get back," Crowton said. "Not being able to work out during the spring will put him a little behind everyone else in the fall, but with his skills and ability, I'm sure it won't be long before he is right back in the mix."
Todd Mortensen will be the fourth quarterback on the BYU roster to compete for playing time this season. Mortensen, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound redshirt freshman recently returned from a Church mission in Venezuela. Mortensen was a first-team All-Arizona and All-East Valley Conference performer as a senior at Tempe High School, where he graduated in 1997 as valedictorian. While at Tempe High School, he held the school record for most career touchdown passes (60), career passing yards (4,950), career victories (28), season touchdown passes (32), season passing yards (2,440) and season victories (14 straight).
Though BYU has as many as 10 running backs listed on its roster, the running game will hinge largely on two players -- Luke Staley and Brian McDonald.
"Both are very good players," Crowton said. "Luke has good speed and good hands, while Brian has good balance and quickness. Both are strong and have good size and bring a great deal of experience. We just need to keep them healthy. There is no question Luke and Brian will play a very important role in our offense."
Staley returns for his junior season after having recorded a team-leading 806 all-purpose yards as a sophomore. The all-Conference performer totaled 479 yards rushing and 327 yards receiving and scored a team-leading eight touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 218-pound running back earned MWC Offensive Player-of-the-Week honors after leading BYU to a 10-7 win over UNLV with a career-high 167 yards rushing on 28 carries. Known for his scoring ability, Staley has produced 17 rushing touchdowns and three TD receptions in two seasons, recording at least one touchdown in 12 of the 19 games in which he has played at BYU. Staley has tallied two three-touchdown performances.
After transferring from Cerritos Junior College last season, McDonald played in all 12 games as a junior at BYU. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound running back led the Cougars with eight rushing touchdowns, including three rushing TDs against Virginia in BYU's come-from-behind, overtime victory against Virginia. McDonald ranked second on the BYU roster with 455 yards rushing, averaging 4.5 yards per carry. McDonald also showed his versatility out of the backfield, recording 15 receptions for 79 yards.
Other players expected to contribute to the BYU backfield are seniors Ned Stearns, Mike Nielsen, Paul Peterson and freshman Logan Deans. Stearns and Nielsen mostly contributed last season on special teams, but are expected to see an increased number of minutes this season. Peterson led BYU last season with 516 yards on 24 returns, averaging 21.5 yards per kickoff return. He is also expected to play a significant role in the BYU backfield.
With the return of senior Doug Jolley and junior Gabriel Reid, in addition to newcomer Spencer Nead, a Junior College All-American, the Cougars will enjoy a great deal of size, depth, talent, speed and athletic ability at tight end. In perhaps one of BYU's strongest offensive positions, Crowton expects the tight ends to play a vital role in both the running game, as well as the passing game.
"This will be a key position for us," Crowton said. "We have size, speed, depth, good hands and guys who can block. I'm very excited about the caliber of players we have at tight end. This will be a very competitive position. With any one of these guys in the lineup, we have some options."
Jolley, a 6-foot-4, 241-pound senior recorded 14 receptions in nine games last season, producing 213 yards and one touchdown. Jolley who split time with Tevita Ofahengaue and Reid last season, averaged nearly 24 yards per game.
Reid, a 6-foot-3, 246-pound junior recorded four receptions in eight appearances as a sophomore, averaging 12.5 yards per reception. Nead enters the program after earning Junior College All-American honors at Ricks College last season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound highly-touted transfer led Teton High School to an Idaho State championship as a senior, earning all-state honors in both football and basketball.
Other tight ends on the roster looking to gain experience and playing time include Aissac Aiono, a 6-foot-5, 234-pound redshirt freshman and Justin Jory, a 6-foot-2, 238-pound junior.
The question BYU coaches must answer this season ... how do you replace Margin Hooks and Jonathan Pittman? Last year's senior duo produced over 1,400 of the Cougars' 3,295 receiving yards.
"I really think we will see some good things out of our receivers," Crowton said. "We have a lot of guys at receiver right now. It may take some time for things to materialize, but I think we have some talented players. We'll just have to wait and see who will rise to the top."
One of the major keys to the receiver corps will be the return of Junior Mahe. Following his freshman season at BYU, Mahe spent the past two seasons away from campus, including a year at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah. Mahe, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior earned All-America and all-conference honors at Dixie last season, leading the nation in receiving, with 57 receptions, 1,387 yards and 19 touchdowns.
The most experienced receiver to return is senior Mike Rigell. The 5-foot-7, 184-pound speedster saw action in all 12 games for the Cougars as a junior, recording 220 yards on 21 receptions. Rigell produced three TDs and averaged over 18 yards receiving per game.
Soren Halladay also brings game-time experience, producing 86 yards on five receptions last season. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior played in five games as a junior, averaging 17.2 yards per game. Justin Anderson, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior is also expected to compete for playing time. Anderson, who is listed with excellent speed, made an early impression on the new offensive coaching staff during spring drills, but went down with a broken leg in the Blue-White Game. Anderson has had a successful off-season and is expected to compete at 100 percent.
Both David and Toby Christensen (no relation) return with game experience from a year ago. David played in six games as a freshman, though mostly on special teams. Toby also saw action, seeing action in every game last season. Another player with special-teams experience who is expected to contribute at receiver is junior Andrew Ord. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound, two-time letterman brings size and game experience, playing in five games as a sophomore on special teams. Others expected to compete for playing time include Pat Williams, a transfer from Ricks College and sophomore Jason Kukahiko.
"I've really been pleased with the progress of the receivers," Crowton added. "There is a lot for us to look at. We have some speedy guys who have shown some nice things. This position is going to be very competitive."
Traditionally a solid position for the Cougars, BYU is left to do a little rebuilding this season -- especially on the interior. With Chris Hoke and Hans Olsen lost to graduation, defensive line coach Tom Ramage, who announced the 2001 season would be his last after 30 years at BYU, will have to look to some underclassmen and newcomers to fill some holes.
Ifo Pili, a 6-foot-3, 310-pound sophomore is back after returning from a church mission in California. Pili shared starting duties at defensive tackle as a freshman, recording 17 tackles, including eight unassisted and nine assisted takedowns. Pili had one sack for six yards, one pass deflection and one QB hurry.
"We're excited about having Ifo back," Crowton said. "With his experience and leadership on the field, he will be a major factor on the defensive line."
Ryan Gunderson, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound sophomore brings game experience to the tackle position as well, recording three tackles in three games last season. Gunderson is expected to compete for a starting position. Ricks College transfer John Denney, who was recruited as a defensive end, could also see playing time at the tackle position. It's an option Cougar coaches are considering.
"Ryan Gunderson did a nice job during spring," Crowton said. "John Denney has also done a nice job and may get some reps at tackle. He has shown the ability to move around a little. That's something we are continuing to look at."
After working a three-man rotation last season, two of the three ends return and are slated as starters entering fall. Ryan Denney and Brett Keisel are simply big, fast and have a great deal of experience which should play a major role in the Cougars ability to pass rush, as well as stopping the run.
"We have some quickness and good size along the defensive line," Crowton said. "Specifically, the guys we have lined up at defensive end are big and fast. They're going to be good. We also have some newcomers and some guys who have converted from tight end who should make an impact."
Denney, a 6-foot-7, 275-pound senior played in 11 of the Cougars' 12 games last season, recording 47 tackles, including 31 unassisted takedowns. Denney produced 14 tackles for a combined loss of 54 yards, including four sacks for 23 yards. He was credited with two pass breakups, one hurry, one recovered fumble, one forced fumble and two blocked kicks. Keisel, a 6-foot-5, 269-pound senior, saw action in all 12 games as a junior, recording 22 tackles. Keisel produced 10 tackles for a combined loss of 54 yards, including five sacks for 47 yards. He was also credited with three pass breakups and two QB hurries.
Converted tight ends Brandon Stephens and Jeff Cowart, along with Ricks College transfer John Denney are also competing for playing time at defensive end. C.J. Ah You was a pleasant surprise during spring drills, displaying amazing speed and the ability to make big plays. Ah You is expected to play a key role along the defensive line for the Cougars.
The linebacking corps, ranked second in the nation by Athlon magazine, is expected to be the heart and soul of the BYU defense. Anchored by seniors Justin Ena and Isaac Kelley, along with sophomore Paul Walkenhorst, all three return with plenty of experience and a proven track record for getting the job done. Arguably one of the best trios in recent BYU history, Ena, Kelley and Walkenhorst combined for 218 tackles last season, including 34 tackles for a net loss of 132 yards.
"There is no question our linebackers are going to be good," Crowton explained. "These three guys are experienced and bring a lot to the defense. Our linebackers, including some of the younger guys, are going to get a lot of action this year. We expect they will be the key strength to our defense."
Ena, charged with replacing first-round draft pick Rob Morris at middle linebacker last season, simply led the Cougars in tackles as a junior, racking up 107 stops, including 49 unassisted tackles. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound first-team All-Mountain West Conference performer forced a team-leading three fumbles, along with three sacks and four pass breakups.
Kelley, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior returns as the starter along the weak side, recording 63 tackles and four sacks last season. The converted quarterback registered 14 tackles for a combined loss of 61 yards.
Walkenhorst, who was forced into action last season with the season-ending injury suffered by Josh Lowe, allowed the Cougars to carry on without missing a beat. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound sophomore produced 48 tackles in 10 games, carrying the responsibility as a true freshman with the composure of a hardened veteran. Walkenhorst recorded nine stops for a combined loss of 34 yards, including one sack for five yards.
In typical Ken Schmidt fashion, the Cougars have some talented players waiting in the wings as well. Each are expected to contribute and should see plenty of playing time this season. Sophomores Bill Wright, Colby Bockwoldt, Brent Carlson and Ammon Mauga each have game experience from last season, recording a combined 26 tackles on the season. Freshman Brady Poppinga, a 6-foot-3, 237-pound freshman, has made his mark and will see action for the Cougars.
With Jared Lee and Tyson Smith lost to graduation, the Cougars will have some big shoes to fill. Lee produced 86 tackles, while Smith registered 48 stops, as well as a team-leading four interceptions, including a MWC record three picks against Wyoming.
After seeing plenty of action in 1999 at safety, Dustin Staley moved to corner last season, filling in for a slightly depleted roster. Staley is back at safety this season and is expected to start on the strong side. The 5-foot-11, 178-pound senior produced 18 tackles last season and was credited with four pass deflections and a forced fumble.
Levi Madarieta, who transferred from Washington last season, is penciled in as the starter at free safety. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore earned freshman honors and saw plenty of action for the Huskies during the 1999 season.
"I think our safeties will be pretty good," Crowton said. "We have some experience there and they have shown some good things early on. They all have good size and range."
Junior Michael Madsen, sophomores Kurt Elliott, Alex Farris, Air Force Academy transfer Brandon Heaney and redshirt freshman Jon Burbidge will also compete for playing time at safety.
After a one-year absence, sophomore Jernaro Gilford will highlight the BYU secondary with his highly-touted closing speed and dominating physical play. Gilford saw limited action in 1999, playing a back-up role to Brian Gray and Heshimu Robertson, but made the most of his playing opportunities, leaving BYU coaches anxious to get him back in the lineup.
"Jernaro is big and strong and can cover exceptionally well," Crowton said. "It will be good to have him back and not have to worry about that side of the field."
After seeing plenty of action last season, Derrus Wilson, Danny Phillips and Michael Lafitte all return for their senior campaigns.
"We've got some guys who have made some real progress at corner," Crowton said. "We feel real good about the way things are developing at corner and really think we have the size, speed and experience to handle things there."
Aaron Edmonds will have some big shoes to fill. Owen Pochman, BYU's all-time leading field goal kicker is on his way to the NFL's New England Patriots and Edmonds, a 5-foot-11, 192-pound senior, will have the job of maintaining BYU's reliable kicking game. Edmonds, who averaged 43.6 yards per punt and landed 17 punts inside the 20-yard line, will handle punting and kick-off duties for the Cougars. Though he may be called upon to kick field goals as well, that job is likely to be handled by redshirt freshman Matt Payne - a 6-foot-4, 247-pound North Ogden, Utah native.
"There's no question Edmonds can punt and kick for us," Crowton said. "But, we will have to see how that develops. Payne did a nice job during the spring and is making some improvements in his accuracy and range. I think our kicking game is going to be fine."
Though BYU coaches have yet to determine who will be returning punts and kickoffs, the usual list of suspects have been listed among those competing for the job.
Senior Mike Rigell led the Cougars last season with 29 punt returns, averaging 6.7 yards per return. Senior Paul Peterson is also back after leading the BYU roster with an average 21.5 yards per kickoff return last season. David Christensen has also been penciled in after recording 8.0 yards per punt and 22.2 yards per kickoff last season.