2011 Cougar Football Season Preview

Boasting a Strong Squad, Cougars Embark on Independence in 2011

With a proven system in place under seventh-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cougars will face teams from the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Pac-12, Conference USA, Western Athletic Conference, Mountain West Conference and Big Sky. The 12-game schedule kicks off at Ole Miss on Sept. 3 and concludes at Hawaii on Dec. 3 with matchups against Texas, TCU, Utah, Oregon State, and Central Florida highlighting the 2011 schedule.

In his first six years as head coach, Mendenhall has the highest win percentage in BYU history at .731 (56-21) that also currently ranks him No. 7 in winning percentage among all active head coaches. His 56 wins are the most by a BYU coach in his first six seasons, and over the last five campaigns only eight teams have achieved more wins than BYU’s 50 victories (Boise State 61-5, Ohio State 56-9, Florida 56-12, TCU 55-10, Oklahoma 54-15, Virginia Tech 52-16, USC 51-14, LSU 51-15). The Cougars have also been successful in postseason matchups, earning six-straight bowl invitations and joining a group of only 11 programs to win four bowls in the last five years.

BYU finished its 12-year tenure in the MWC with 64 conference victories—the most of any MWC school. The Cougars enter independence having finished in the Top 25 in four of the last five years and look to earn a spot among that elite company again in 2011. 

Winning five of its final six games in 2010, BYU capped the season with a dominating 52-24 New Mexico Bowl victory over UTEP to finish the year 7-6 overall after a 1-4 start. BYU’s bowl victory highlighted the progress and momentum the relatively young team gained over the course of the season as 19 freshman played for the Cougars and several played big roles in the season ending victory.

True freshman quarterback Jake Heaps became the first frosh signal caller in BYU history to start in a bowl and completed 25-of-34 passes for 264 yards and four touchdowns to be named New Mexico Bowl Offensive MVP. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Cody Hoffman caught three touchdowns on eight receptions for 137 yards in the bowl win, while true freshman running back Joshua Quezada ran for 101 yards on 15 carries and one touchdown. The Cougars established 31 New Mexico Bowl records during the game and set 11 BYU bowl high marks, including most points (52) and most rushing yards (219).

“We were really making progress as the season ended last year and in the spring I was pleased to see we picked up where we left off,” Mendenhall said. “This team is very talented and we have more depth than in the previous six years that I’ve been the coach. They love to compete and they are fun to be around. I like our chemistry. I’m very optimistic.”

Among 31 offensive and 29 defensive lettermen returning, the 2011 Cougars return 19 starters (10 on offense, 9 on defense) and 14 additional players who have starting experience. They also expect strong contributions from several who didn’t have a chance to play last year due to transfer rules and injuries, such as USC transfer linebacker Uona Kaveinga and redshirt freshman receiver Ross Apo.

Detailed below is a breakdown of the 2011 team heading into fall camp.

OFFENSE

BYU employs a pro-style offense that under the direction of new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman will be similar to the traditional BYU offenses of the past. The offense came on strong the last half of the 2010 season after a slow start with inexperienced players in key roles against a tough schedule. With 10 of 11 starters returning, the 2011 squad looks to build on the experience and momentum gained last year, needing only to fill a void at right guard. Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and All-America candidate Matt Reynolds (Sr., OL) anchors an offensive line that includes three players who have started every game each of the last two years and a fourth (Braden Brown) who started all of last year and part of the prior season.

Sophomore Jake Heaps, who broke all BYU freshman QB records and was MVP of New Mexico Bowl, has a talented receiving corps returning along with all the running backs from last season that notched seven games of 200 or more yards on the ground for BYU, the most in a season by a Cougar team since 2001. After spring drills the offense is energized under the leadership of Doman, who in addition to tutoring Heaps last season has helped both of BYU’s prior starters land in the NFL under his tutelage. New coaches on the staff in 2011 include Joe DuPaix, who will coach running backs after coming to BYU from Navy, and former Cougar Ben Cahoon, who will mentor receivers after retiring in January as the CFL’s all-time receptions leader.

QUARTERBACK

The tradition of the BYU quarterback factory should add another notable chapter in 2011 after true freshman Jake Heaps broke all the school’s freshmen records in 2010. While the biggest question mark entering last season was who would take over at quarterback given three-year starter Max Hall’s departure, this year BYU’s quarterback stable is, well, just that—stable. Five talented players make up the depth chart at this vital position with Heaps the clear-cut starter, followed by juniors Riley Nelson and James Lark, sophomore Jason Munns and true freshman Alex Kuresa. Both Heaps and Nelson amassed huge numbers as high school All-Americans. Heaps has all the physical tools directing BYU’s pro-style offense to be among the top signal callers in the nation. He can make every throw and has talented weapons at his disposal with 10 starters returning. Building on the strong finish to his 10-start true freshmen season, the nation’s top rated quarterback recruit in 2010 had an outstanding spring in his second go-around and seems poised for a big sophomore campaign in 2011 commanding the BYU attack.

Nelson started the first three games in 2010, sharing time with Heaps in a two-quarterback rotation, before an injury early in the third game at Florida State put him out for the season. The athletic left-hander returned to put up strong numbers with both his arm and his feet during spring practices. Lark, the 2005 Utah 3A MVP out of Pine View High School in St. George, Utah, returned from a mission last year and backed up Heaps over the final 10 games of the season, appearing in four contests. Munns, the 2006 Big Nine Co-Player of the Year out of Southridge High School in Kennewick, Wash., also returned from a mission last year and is another very capable player should his number be called. Kuresa, the 2010 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year and Deseret News Mr. Football recipient, joins the mix out of Mountain Crest High School after setting nearly every career quarterback record in the state of Utah, including total offense (12,917), passing yards (10,951) and passing touchdowns (101).

RUNNING BACK

BYU returns all of its backs in 2011 in what should be a strong group of playmakers. Senior JJ Di Luigi averaged 5.2 yards per carry while rushing for 917 yards last year, adding another 443 yards as a receiver. He had a team-leading eight touchdowns on the ground and one more through the air while touching the ball more than any other back or receiver with team-highs of 178 carries and 45 receptions. The shifty, make-you-miss runner should once again be an all-purpose weapon in the Cougar attack. Fellow senior Bryan Kariya, a north-and-south runner, added 550 yards on 137 carries last year with 21 catches for 122 yards. An excellent blocker and leader, Kariya will continue to play a critical role out of the backfield. One player sure to increase his touches in 2011 is Joshua Quezada. Coming off a strong end to his true freshman season in 2010, the sophomore excelled in the spring and should demand more reps as a primary ball carrier in his second season. Known as a strong runner, he has all the tools to be BYU's primary ball carrier over the next three years.

True fullback Zed Mendenhall, a junior, returns as a powerful blocker with starting experience. Junior David Foote, sophomore Ryan Folsom and returned missionaries Michael Alisa, Iona Pritchard and Adam Hine are among those looking to take advantage of their opportunities to give BYU depth in the backfield under the new leadership of assistant coach Joe DuPaix, who enters his first year with the Cougars after coming from Navy. As freshmen in 2008, Alisa played linebacker and Pritchard saw time at both linebacker and running back. Alisa made the move to running back during spring practices and Pritchard will focus on the offensive side of the ball as well in 2011.

WIDE RECEIVER

BYU’s receivers may be some of the most talented to ever line up for the Cougars and they will be tutored in 2011 by new receivers coach Ben Cahoon, the CFL's all-time receptions leader known for precision route running and excellent hands. Last year’s starters return in senior McKay Jacobson and sophomore Cody Hoffman. Only one regular-rotation receiver—Luke Ashworth (2 starts, 368 yards, 7 TDs)—will not be back in 2011. While Ashworth’s clutch scoring will need to be replaced, the talent level is high with the addition of redshirt freshman Ross Apo, who missed last season due to a finger injury. Joining the 6-foot-4 Hoffman, the 6-foot-3 Apo gives BYU two tall, athletic receivers for Heaps to throw to in 2011. Hoffman led BYU with 527 yards and shared TD honors with Ashworth, hauling in seven scoring receptions. He finished the year with three touchdowns on eight receptions for 137 yards in BYU’s New Mexico Bowl victory. Jacobson is a speedy receiver with good hands poised for a strong final campaign. He totaled 410 yards on 37 catches in 2010 as the BYU offense worked out some kinks through the early going. He had 528 receiving yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2006 prior to serving an LDS Church mission. He ranked behind only All-American tight end Dennis Pitta in receiving yards as a sophomore in 2009 with 556 yards despite missing four games due to an injury. One of 10 players in the nation with two or more receptions over 70 yards, Jacobson’s 24.2 yards per catch as a sophomore ranked No. 4 in the nation among all receivers who averaged at least one catch per game.

Sophomore JD Falslev, a shifty runner known for making plays, showed during spring that he will press for time on the field in addition to his punt and kick return duties. Senior Spencer Hafoka, a three-year letterman with 22 receptions, and 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore returned missionary Jordan Smith, a first-team All-State player out of Spanish Fork High School, are among a group of additional wideouts adding depth on the outside for BYU.

TIGHT END

After losing consensus All-America tight end Dennis Pitta and his all-conference backup Andrew George to the NFL, BYU introduced five freshman tight ends in 2010 and expects to see exponential growth in production from this sophomore class in 2011. One of the group, Mike Muehlmann, has moved to defensive end, leaving Devin Mahina, Marcus Mathews, Austin Holt and Richard Wilson returning to compete in fall camp. Joining the mix in addition to senior Matt Edwards is sophomore Kaneakua Friel, who played in eight games with one start as a freshman in 2008 prior to leaving for a two-year mission, and true freshman Colby Jorgensen, the nation’s No. 28 tight end recruit in 2011 out of Timpview High School. The 6-foot- 6 Mahina made five starts in 2010 and appeared in 12 games while leading the freshmen five last year with 11 catches for 118 yards. He comes out of spring practices listed as the starter with Mathews and Holt sharing backup slots on the depth chart.

A strong threat as a downfield receiver, the 6-foot-5 Mathews totaled a position best 136 yards in 2010 before a season-ending injury limited his action to eight games and eight receptions. At 6-foot-4, Holt excels as a blocker and receiver, earning two starts last year while seeing action in 12 games. Wilson will add his talents to the equation in fall camp after sitting out spring drills rehabbing from postseason surgery. The athletic, 6-foot-2 Wilson (3 starts and 12 games in 2010) joins the 6-foot-5 Friel, the 6-foot-7 Jorgensen and 6-foot-3 Edwards in making the tight end position not only deep but also more experienced compared to last year. Assistant head coach Lance Reynolds coaches the tight ends in 2011, moving over from running backs. His mentorship and 32-years experience is expected to aid the development of this young group of talented players.

OFFENSIVE LINE 

A key strength of the BYU team is literally its strength up front. Led by Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and All-America candidate Matt Reynolds, the Cougars return four starters and have plenty of talent competing to get on the field in 2011. Perhaps the nation’s top lineman, Reynolds is a three-year starter at the critical left tackle position and is prepared to deliver a strong final campaign before taking his talents to the NFL. He is a two-time first-team all-conference, College Football News All-Sophomore Team and multiple Freshman All- America honoree.

After deciding to not enter the draft as a junior, Reynolds joins fellow returning starters Braden Hansen (LG, CFN All-Sophomore Team and All-MWC honorable mention, 2009 Freshman All-American), Terence Brown (C, All-MWC honorable mention, 2009 CFN All-Sophomore Team honorable mention), and Braden Brown (RT) in protecting quarterback Jake Heaps and creating holes for the Cougar running backs. Among those likely to replace departed right guard Jason Speredon are junior Walter Kahaiali’i, sophomore Houston Reynolds (brother of Matt) and senior Marco Thorson. Another player who has the talent to be on the field is high school All-American Ryker Mathews. A mid-year enrollee, the true freshman played left tackle during spring while Matt Reynolds sat out rehabbing a postseason surgery. He showed he has all the tools to become Reynolds’ heir apparent and could factor into the mix in his first season. Offensive line coach Mark Weber was able to give many of his younger linemen plenty of experience during spring practices as only Braden Brown participated among the starters with others rehabbing from surgeries. They made good progress and give Weber a deep cadre of big bodies prepared to spearhead the Cougar offensive attack in 2011.

DEFENSE

Bronco Mendenhall will maintain the defensive coordinator role in 2011. The Cougars came on strong after he took over the defense for the final eight games last season. After ranking 101st nationally in total defense following the 1-4 start, the Cougars showed significant improvement under Mendenhall’s leadership to earn the nation’s No. 24 overall defense at year’s end, ranking only behind TCU—the nation’s No. 1 defense—among MWC schools. In 2011, the Cougar front seven is as deep and talented as perhaps any of Mendenhall’s previous teams and should prove stout against the run. First-team All-MWC defensive lineman Vic So'oto graduated, but he leaves his former teammates in good hands with seven starters and four others with starting experience available among the front seven. 

In the secondary, BYU will introduce some new faces. The Cougars are replacing the team's KAT safety and team captain Andrew Rich as well as cornerbacks Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley. Rich led the team in tackles, interceptions, pass breakups and forced fumbles last season and was named All-MWC First Team. Sophomore returned missionary Daniel Sorensen demonstrated great potential during the spring in filling Rich’s role, while two corners with starting experience return to compete with several talented redshirts and transfers to fill out the BYU secondary.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The defensive line loses defensive end Vic So’oto but boasts five players with starting experience. Before a season-ending knee injury, perhaps the team’s best defensive player in 2010 was Romney Fuga. The 6-foot-2, 307-pound defensive tackle only played the first four games but is expected to again anchor the defensive front in 2011. Starting end Matt Putnam is back for his senior season along with junior Eathyn Manumaleuna, who started at end and tackle last year due to the variety of injuries the team suffered during the season. A two-year starter, Manumaleuna is slated to start at right end backed up by Jordan Richardson, who started five games last year in Fuga’s spot before also suffering a year-ending injury. Putnam is joined on the depth chart by sophomore Graham Rowley at left end, both of whom could pull starting duties.

Also in the mix is returning missionary Ian Dulan, who started three years before deciding to leave for his missionary service. If Dulan doesn’t redshirt, he adds significant experience and ability to the defensive frontline. The middle of the line will be a strength that should help BYU be stingy against the run. Behind Fuga, the Cougars have two extremely talented players who showed during spring they should make a difference when on the field. Redshirt freshman Travis Tuiloma and senior Hebron Fangupo, a transfer from USC, give BYU perhaps one of the best 1-2-3 punches at one of the most important, if under-appreciated, positions. The Cougars may also be without the services of 2010 backup end Thomas Bryson, who left school and did not participate in spring but could return in the fall. Mike Muehlmann adds his agile frame to the mix after moving from tight end to defensive end during the spring, while fall camp will bring the additional talents of incoming freshmen Moses Kaumatule (West Jordan, Utah/Bingham HS), Baker Pritchard (South Jordan, Utah/Bingham HS) and Stehly Reden (Valley Center, Calif./ Valley Center HS).

LINEBACKERS

Adding to the depth of the defensive line, BYU’s linebacking corps gives the Cougars a front seven that is deep and talented. The Cougars lose inside linebacker Shane Hunter to graduation but return four starters, three others with starting experience and several experienced transfers and returned missionaries. One of the starters back is strong-side linebacker Jordan Pendleton, who returns his NFL-caliber tools to the Cougar defense after playing in only six games last year because of an injury.

A player whose development may have benefitted from Pendleton’s missed action is sophomore Kyle Van Noy, who played in all 13 games as true freshman, including two starts. Perhaps the best athlete on the team, Van Noy is a playmaker who presents a unique combination of size and speed that can still frustrate offenses on otherwise well-executed plays. Lott Trophy candidate Jameson Frazier, voted a team captain in 2011, returns as a starting outside linebacker, joining the talents of Pendleton, Van Noy and Jadon Wagner, who was selected in the 2011 CFL Draft but has decided to put off a professional career to return for his final season. Frazier and Wagner, who started nine games in 2010, should man the weak side with Pendleton being joined by Van Noy on the strong side. Both Van Noy and Frazier have experience at both outside positions.

Redshirt freshman Alani Fua is a talent ready to see his first action in a backup role on the outside, joining returned missionary freshman Kevan Bills and Ghana-native Ezekiel Ansah, who as a track athlete has the physical size and speed to be a real contributor as he becomes more familiar with the game. On the inside, junior Brandon Ogletree returns after starting eight games last year and finishing fourth on the team with 49 tackles.

Likely to start at the other inside position is USC transfer Uona Kaveinga, who sat out last season due to transfer rules. The junior has proven through his redshirt year and during spring practices that he will be a leader on the defense and a name called by many announcers as he makes plays in the BYU 3-4 defense. Junior Austin Jorgensen, who made three starts last year and was fifth on the team with 46 tackles, provides starter talent behind Kaveinga. Sophomore Spencer Hadley, who played in 11 games as a true freshman in 2008, returned from his mission and showed during spring that he will earn time in the middle along with Ogletree. Sophomore Zac Stout will redshirt due to offseason surgery; however, Aveni Leung-Wai has starting experience and is joined among others by sophomore Tyler Beck and incoming freshmen Lene Lesatele (Artesia, Calif./Gahr HS), Teu Kautai (Arlington, Texas/ The Oakridge School) and Austin Heder (Pleasant Grove, Utah/Pleasant Grove HS) in making the 2011 linebackers among the deepest group at BYU in many years.

SECONDARY

The position with the most changes in 2011 will be the Cougar secondary. Gone are all-conference safety Andrew Rich and cornerbacks Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley. The big-hitting Rich led the team in multiple categories, including tackles, interceptions and pass breakups, while Logan was the team’s primary cover corner the past two seasons and Bradley was a steady performer at the boundary corner spot. Free safety Travis Uale, who has been voted a team captain going into his senior season, is the lone returning starter but is joined by a group of players who have the potential to make the transition in the defensive backfield a smooth one.

The player who has turned the most heads is sophomore safety Daniel Sorensen, a returned missionary who played linebacker in 2008 before spending the past two years as a missionary in Costa Rica. Back in his original position at strong safety, Sorensen delivered hits and defended passes during spring practices in a way that could make the adjustment to life without Rich much better than might have been anticipated. Sophomore Jray Galea’i joins Sorensen on the depth chart at the KAT position, while junior Mike Hague is pushing Uale for time at free safety after moving from running back during the spring. Junior Carter Mees and sophomore Chase Pendley also show promise at the free and KAT positions, respectively. 

The corners have two players with starting experience returning in senior Corby Eason and junior Robbie Buckner. Eason was a major contributor last season at boundary corner with 22 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He sat out spring drills recovering from a postseason surgery, which gave Snow College transfer Preston Hadley the opportunity to show he will be a contributor in his first season at BYU. DeQuan Everett, a junior who redshirted last year after transferring from Cerritos JC, is also in the mix. Buckner is competing with redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson at the field corner spot vacated by Logan.

SPECIAL TEAMS

All but one specialist or returner is back in 2011. The lone exception is the MWC and BYU career scoring leader Mitch Payne, who has manned the team’s primary placekicking duties for four years. Taking over the challenge of replacing Payne is the strong-legged returned missionary Justin Sorensen. As a freshman in 2008, Sorensen handled kickoff responsibilities and booted 32 balls for touchbacks. He had limited opportunity kicking field goals as a freshman but made his only regular-distance attempt of 31 yards. His two other attempts were both unsuccessful 50-plus-yard kicks.

The punting duties rest on the capable foot of a junior Riley Stephenson. The versatile junior will be able to concentrate on punting duties in 2011 after handling much of the kickoff responsibilities the past two years. An All-MWC honorable mention performer as a freshman, he can kick for distance or touch with 17 punts of more than 50 yards last year and 20 kicks placed inside the 20. He tied his career high and set a BYU bowl record with a 60-yard boot in BYU’s New Mexico Bowl victory. Deep snapper Reed Hornung and holder Matt Marshall are back as well as return specialists JD Falslev and Cody Hoffman.