BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall enters his fifth season in 2009. He has helped BYU return to the ranks of the nation's top programs since taking over in Provo in 2005.
Cougars Hungry to Build on Past Achievements in 2009
Coming off a nationally ranked 10-3 season in 2008, the Cougars are hungry to build on the many successes they have achieved under the direction of head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Since taking over a BYU program in 2005 that had not enjoyed a winning season since 2001, Mendenhall has guided BYU to four straight bowl invitations, two outright Mountain West Conference championships and consistent national top-25 rankings.
BYU is one of just eight teams to be ranked in the final USA Today Coaches Poll each of the past three seasons, and one of just nine programs to be ranked in the final BCS Standings and Associated Press Top 25 during that span. BYU has posted a 32-7 overall record the past three years, a record only surpassed by five teams—Boise State (35-4), Florida (34-6), Oklahoma (34-7), USC (34-5) and Ohio State (33-5).
The Cougars hope to build on the consistency achieved in the program under Mendenhall. BYU is one of only seven teams to win 10 or more games each of the last three seasons, something not accomplished in Provo since the glory years of the LaVell Edwards era from 1983-85.
With an experienced senior class returning in 2009, BYU should once again be a top-25 caliber team and one of the favorites to win the MWC title. The Cougars will play a strong schedule that includes three teams that finished in the top seven last year—No. 2 Utah, No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 7 TCU—as well as No. 21 Florida State.
“In addition to our MWC games, we have a strong nonconference schedule with teams from the Big 12, ACC, Conference USA and the WAC,” Mendenhall said. “We look forward to playing these games as we continue to work on improving our program and building on our past achievements.”
Among 18 offensive and 25 defensive lettermen returning, BYU will have 12 starters back from last year’s 10-3 Las Vegas Bowl team as well as nine other players with starting experience.
Over the years, BYU has developed a national reputation for being an offensive power. The Cougars were the nation’s sixth-ranked passing offense last season at 310.38 yards per game and have been ranked in the top six in the country in three of Mendenhall’s four seasons in Provo.
All of the team’s key internal ball handlers on the offensive unit return in 2009. The Cougar offense will be led for the third-straight year by senior all-conference quarterback Max Hall. Like Hall, all-conference junior running back Harvey Unga and All-American senior tight end Dennis Pitta are back for their third season starting together, while senior reserve tight end Andrew George gives BYU another quality inside playmaker.
Including Freshman All-American left tackle Matt Reynolds, four offensive starters from 2008 return while six starters were lost to graduation and one, All-American wide receiver Austin Collie, to the NFL Draft. Five other Cougars return with starting experience, including the much-anticipated return of speedy sophomore receiver McKay Jacobson, who is back from a two-year mission. Mendenhall believes the team’s receiving corps and talented crop of offensive lineman will step up to the challenge of replacing last year’s starters. That will be the biggest question for an offense that should once again rank among the very best in the nation.
Max Hall, who has been among the nation’s top quarterbacks the past two seasons, returns for his senior campaign in 2009 after earning All-MWC Second Team honors last year as well as SportsIllustrated.com All-America honorable mention. Entering his third year as the starter, Hall is an experienced leader and competitor who has the skills and abilities to be among the top contenders for the major quarterback awards and the Heisman Trophy. Last year Hall ranked No. 6 in the nation in passing yards per game (304.38), No. 7 in total passing yards (3,957), No. 8 in completions per game (25.38), No. 9 in in total offense (313.23) and No. 11 in passing efficiency (157.21) while completing 69.2 percent of his passes and totaling an MWC single-season record 35 touchdowns, including seven scoring throws vs. UCLA. Backup Brenden Gaskins returns for his senior season. He appeared in six games as a sophomore and three games last year as Hall’s understudy. Another player who could have an impact in 2009 is Utah State transfer Riley Nelson, who joins the team for fall camp after serving an LDS Church mission. Nelson earned the starting job as a true freshman at Utah State in 2006.
Two-year starter Harvey Unga will be a junior in 2009 and headline the Cougar backfield. The bruising 239-pound back has posted consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons while earning freshman and sophomore All-America accolades. After being a little banged up last season, Unga enters fall camp in full health, poised to play a strong role in the Cougar offensive attack once again. Unga has totaled 2,380 yards over his two previous seasons along with 24 touchdowns while adding 964 yards and eight scores catching the ball. Sophomore Bryan Kariya impressed as a true freshman last year earning more and more playing time as the season progressed. He played in 12 games and averaged 5.6 yards a carry on his 12 attempts last season. Coming on strong during the spring was sophomore running back J.J. Di Luigi, who played in 11 games last season. Di Luigi is expected to see an increased role on the team in 2009. Freshman Malosi Te’o also turned some heads during spring practice after two years of missionary service. Getting back versatile former starter Manase Tonga, who is expected to return for fall camp after missing last season to work on academics, would provide BYU an experienced three-year letterman to complement Unga in the backfield. A strong blocker and solid runner and receiver, Tonga was a mainstay on BYU’s back-to-back MWC championship teams in 2006 and 2007.
The Cougars will be without both starting wideouts from last year, most notably All-American Austin Collie who led the nation with 1,538 receiving yards in 2008. While Collie declared as a junior for the NFL Draft, the Cougars also lost through graduation the sure-handed Michael Reed on the other side. Reed was third on the team with 589 yards last year, including a season-high 117 yards in BYU’s bowl game. The losses, however, are tempered by the much-anticipated return of Texas-product McKay Jacobson, who totaled 528 receiving yards and three touchdowns as a freshman in 2006 prior to serving an LDS Church mission. The speedy receiver also served as a returner as a freshman, returning his first-ever punt for a 77-yard touchdown. Jacobson was held out of most of spring ball while nursing a hamstring injury back to full health, but he will be ready to contribute in the fall. Sophomore O’Neill Chambers and junior Luke Ashworth are also expected to play significant roles. The 6-foot-2 Chambers served as the team’s primary return specialist last year and played in all 13 games, including one start in Reed’s absence. Ashworth, a two-year letterman, earned two starts last season while playing in all 13 games. Junior two-year letterman Tyler Kozlowski and sophomore Spencer Hafoka are among the other receivers who will compete to be part of the receiver rotation in 2009. Hafoka wasn’t able to participate in spring practices after being quarantined with influenza.
BYU’s tight end position may be the strongest in the country. All-American Dennis Pitta, the lone unanimous pick on the All-MWC First Team offense last year, is back and poised to improve upon his stellar junior campaign. Despite being slowed by an injury in BYU’s final three games, Pitta totaled 1,083 yards on 83 catches last season while totaling six touchdowns. He has returned to full health and will be a dangerous weapon for Max Hall, whether over the middle or deep in the secondary. Andrew George is a starter talent who allows the Cougars to effectively utilize two tight end sets and not miss a beat when Pitta needs to catch his breath. He totaled 219 yards last year with six touchdown grabs. Waiting in the wings, redshirt freshman Braden Brown may earn some time on the field. A 6-foot-6, 260-pound athlete, Brown could also be used as a blocking back in the Cougar attack. Freshman Mike Muehlmann returned from his missionary service and will look to contribute after having a very strong spring. The Cougars also bring in several talented freshman tight ends in 2009, including the nation’s No. 4 prospect Richard Wilson.
A key to BYU’s offensive success will be the play of its line. Freshman All-American Matt Reynolds returns but the four other starters will need to be replaced in 2009. Gone are experienced starters Dallas Reynolds, Rey Feinga, Travis Bright and David Oswald. Reynolds (CFN All-America Third Team), Feinga (SI.com All-America honorable mention) and Bright were each an all-conference performer with Reynolds and Feinga first-team selections and Bright on the second team. While the four starters will be missed, BYU’s coaches are confident in the players who will be taking over in the trenches. Senior center R.J. Willing is a three-year letterman with significant game experience, including nine starts. Sophomore Terence Brown (right guard), junior Jason Speredon (left guard) and junior Nick Alletto (right tackle) have parlayed their previous letter-winning experience into promising spring-practice efforts in first-unit roles. Reynolds, meanwhile, continues to hold down the left tackle spot where he allowed only one sack last year protecting Hall’s blindside. While the Cougars lost junior two-year letterman Garrett Reden due to injury, junior transfer Jesse Taufi, who redshirted last season, and redshirt freshman Braden Hansen showed during the spring that they are talents able to contribute at both the tackle and guard positions. Additional competition is expected during fall camp from returning missionaries Houston Reynolds, Famika Anae and Ryan Freeman as well as some promising high school recruits.
While BYU has a well-earned reputation of being one of the nation’s top offenses, the Cougar defense has also achieved results placing it among the best in the nation. During back-to-back MWC Championship seasons in 2006 and 2007, BYU’s defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in fewest points allowed and was also rated the nation’s No. 9 rush defense and No. 10 overall defense in 2007. Last year BYU tied an MWC record by not allowing an opponent to score for 11 consecutive quarters, including a 59-0 victory over UCLA. After finishing No. 39 in points allowed last season, this year’s defense has the potential to again rank among the top 10.
The 2009 defense will mix a heavy blend of experience with the exciting addition of some talented newcomers. Eight starters and four others with starting experience are slated to return. The MWC’s all-time sacks leader Jan Jorgensen will headline a defensive front returning all three defensive-line regulars and three of the four starting linebackers. In addition, the defense returns athletic linebacker Vic So’oto, a starter who was sidelined by injury after only two games last season, and senior inside linebacker Terrance Hooks, who is back to full health and ready to make a difference after limited action last year. With the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Jordan Pendleton moving from defensive back to the outside linebacker position vacated by David Nixon, the Cougar linebacking corps will be a versatile and athletic group in 2009.
In the secondary, the team will see some new faces. Starting cornerback Scott Johnson will move to free safety and occasional starter Andrew Rich could fill the other safety spot. At the corners, Brandon Bradley, who started twice last year while seeing significant time in 12 games as a sophomore, could be the full-time starter at boundary corner, while the team hopes field-corner starter Brandon Howard is able to return after missing spring ball due to personal circumstances. The competition in the secondary will pick up in the fall with the addition of talented junior college transfers Lee Aguirre and Brian Logan and several highly touted high school standouts. With its experienced returners and some strong new talent, BYU’s defense should be improved in 2009.
All-America candidate Jan Jorgensen is already the MWC’s all-time sacks leader with one full season remaining. The Lombardi and Ted Hendricks awards candidate brings three years of starting experience at left end to a defensive front that also returns starting right end Brett Denney and starting nose tackle Russell Tialavea. Jorgensen will look to add to his 24 career sacks as the first-team all-conference performer anchors BYU’s experienced front line. The three returning senior starters will receive support from ends Matt Putnam, who recorded 27 tackles, three sacks and an interception last year as a freshman, and talented junior college transfer Bernard Afutiti, who is ready to make a difference after redshirting last season. Junior Rick Wolfley, a two-year letterman, will help man the middle of the line for the Cougars while several newcomers will compete for time on the field.
Three of four starters return with inside linebackers Matt Bauman and Shawn Doman and outside backer Coleby Clawson all returning for their senior seasons. Bauman led the team with 108 tackles last year while also earning first-team Academic All-America accolades. Doman added 60 tackles, missing one game due to an appendicitis surgery, while Clawson took over the starting role in the third game of the year and responded with a team-leading 11.5 tackles for loss among his 55 tackles on the year. Gone is second-leading tackler and second-team all-conference performer David Nixon, who leaves as the MWC’s career tackle-for-loss leader with 43. Filling his spot during spring ball was the 6-foot-2, 228-pound sophomore Jordan Pendleton, who moved from defensive back to the strong-side linebacker position. Pendleton has all the physical tools to excel as a playmaker at the position as he adjusts from playing in the secondary. Joining this group is the athletic Vic So’oto, who started in Clawson’s spot last season before suffering a season-ending injury in the second game. The Cougars will also see help from seniors Terrance Hooks, Matt Ah You and Dan Van Sweden as well as juniors Grant Nelson and Jordan Atkinson among others. Hooks, who returned from injury last year to see some limited action late in the season, had a good spring and could become a mainstay in the middle as a senior in 2009. In total, the Cougar linebacking corps will be a versatile and athletic group with good experience.
In the secondary, the team will see some new faces with starting safeties Kellen Fowler and David Tafuna lost to graduation and starting field corner Brandon Howard potentially lost due to personal circumstances. Starting boundary cornerback Scott Johnson moved to free safety in the spring where he teamed with last year’s occasional starter Andrew Rich at the other safety spot. Johnson has excellent leadership skills and will quarterback the secondary as a senior in 2009. Last year he was fifth on the team with 59 tackles despite missing nearly three full games due to an injury. Rich, meanwhile, started in three games last year and appeared in all 13 games as a significant reserve at both safety and corner. Brandon Bradley could man the boundary corner after starting twice last year as a sophomore while seeing significant action in 12 games. Redshirt freshman Garrett Nicholson showed during spring ball that he is up to the task of being a regular on the field. Among the other returning secondary players that could challenge for playing time include sophomore safeties Shiloah Te’o and Travis Uale, who both contributed on special teams last year as freshman, as well as sophomore corner Steven Thomas and junior converted corner Landon Jaussi. Last year Juassi played receiver. With the anticipated additions in the fall of talented junior college corners Lee Aguirre and Brian Logan and several highly touted prep standouts, including the nation’s No. 10- and No. 23-rated safety recruits in Craig Bills and Jray Galea’i, respectively, the secondary has the potential to be a stronger unit overall in 2009.
Junior kicker Mitch Payne returns for his third season as BYU’s primary field goal and PAT kicker. Last year he made 10-of-14 field goals and converted 54-of-56 PATs after identical field-goal numbers in 2007 along with a 43-of-45 success rate on PATs as a freshman. He made a career-best 46-yard field goal last year while making 3-of-4 attempts from longer than 40 yards. With freshman kicker Justin Sorensen departed for an LDS Church mission, Payne will again assume the kickoff duties that Sorensen provided in 2008. Payne averaged 60.7 yards per kickoff as a freshman. BYU was the MWC’s top punting team last year with C.J. Santiago putting his foot to the ball. With Santiago gone, the Cougars will look to either sophomore Tyler Holt or returning missionary Riley Stephenson. Holt has impressed during spring practice drills. Deep snapper John Pace is a senior and a two-year letterman. In the return department, O’Neill Chambers is back as the team’s primary return specialist. Last year BYU ranked No. 9 nationally in kickoff returns (24.6 yards). Receiver Luke Ashworth and cornerback Garrett Nicholson will also contribute as returners in 2009.
The Cougars will play 11 of 12 games on a Saturday this season, with the lone exception being a Friday night contest with Utah State on Oct. 2. BYU will start the 2009 season on Sept. 5 as part of the second-annual ESPN Kickoff Week against nationally ranked Oklahoma in a historic game being played at the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium in Arlington, Texas. After facing Oklahoma, the Cougars will travel to New Orleans to play at Tulane in the Louisiana Superdome on Sept. 12. BYU will play its home opener the next week against Florida State on Sept. 19 in a 5 p.m. MT kick. In addition to Florida State and Utah State, the Cougars’ home schedule played at LaVell Edwards Stadium, where they have gone unbeaten for three straight seasons for the first time in school history, includes last year’s No. 2-ranked Utah Utes and No. 7-rated TCU Horned Frogs. The Cougars play six bowl teams in all during the 2009 season. BYU games will be televised on VERSUS, CBS College Sports Network and the ESPN networks twice apiece while seven contests will be broadcast on The Mtn., including a simulcast of the BYU-Utah game on Nov. 28 with CBS C.