Quarterback, offensive line biggest concerns as BYU begins spring camp
It is that time of year again in Provo, time for spring football practice to begin on the BYU campus, either at the indoor practice facility or the outdoor facility in back of the Student Athlete Building. Monday's first practice, which isn't open to the public, will likely be at the IPF, considering that there's still a lot of snow on the ground in Provo. I previewed the camp, the ninth spring camp in coach Bronco Mendenhall's tenure, in The Salt Lake Tribune this morning with a focus on the quarterback situation. Coaches are trying to paint it as a wide-open race to be the starter, but my gut reaction after a teleconference with Mendenhall on Friday is that Taysom Hill has the edge if he can continue to recover from the season-ending knee injury he suffered against Utah State. Here's Mendenhall's rundown on the QB situation when he was asked how important it will be to find a starter by the end of spring camp, which is April 4: "I think it is important, and I would love for that to happen, and I would love for the performance on the field to dictate that. I think it will be a little bit different, and I am not sure possible because of Taysom not being 100 percent healthy. But we would like to see all players on the offensive side through fresh lenses, meaning that it is a new coaching staff and I have asked them to view players as if they hadn't seen them before, and allow what they have seen through the offseason, which has been very difficult, and very challenging, and so that has been weighted very heavily. And a lot of how the players will start out spring has just been based on how diligently they worked in the offseason. And that has been a very important shift in terms of emphasis for the entire team, that every day does matter and how they work. So now going back to the quarterback spot, between the quarterbacks that we have, I would love to have a quarterback and a starter clearly defined by the end of spring. I can't project yet nor predict yet how that is going to happen, because of where Taysom is, and until we see how much he can do. That's going to be difficult and so it might not happen by then, I guess is what I am presenting. I have been very impressed by Ammon Olsen. I liked him a ton as our scout team quarterback last year. And I thought he was very, very capable. I respect Jason Munns and all the work he has done to stay in our program all this time. I am also very excited about Billy Green as he comes in mid-year with really just the drive to show what he can do. The other unique situation is we have Tanner Mangum who is here just one semester before his mission, so we would like to give him enough looks to really assess his ability and make sure he gets integrated before he goes on his mission, but obviously that takes a backseat to the urgency of finding a starter and establishing a backup." Clearly, Hill is not 100 percent recovered from the injury and subsequent surgery, nor was he expected to be. In the days following his injury, BYU trainer Jeff Hurst didn't speak optimistically about Hill's chances to return for even a part of spring camp, so having him out there at all is kind of a bonus for the Cougars. I asked Mendenhall for the latest on Hill's health on Friday. "It is a little bit loose right now in terms of defining exactly what it will be," Mendenhall said. "Our biggest challenge with Taysom is holding him back. He's ahead of schedule, he wants to keep pushing it, he wants to compete in everything, he wants to win everything, and so continually the words out of our trainer, Jeff Hurst's mouth, and as a staff, is 'take it slower, back off.' But that's really not part of his personality so we are having to work hard that way. I think we have to be very clear. He is going to be able to do quite a bit. At this point, no contact, but the majority of non-contact things he will be able to participate in. And how I structure the spring will have a lot to do with what I see the first week. Our practice structure is different this year. We will go Monday, Wednesday, Friday. That gives us meeting times in between to make sure that each practice has a chance to be truly productive, but also allow the offensive scheme and the new coaches to really simulate the new material. So we think spreading it out a little more will allow more focus and a little bit more time for us to be productive as well. That should help Taysom as well get a little more time between practices where hopefully he can participate at a little bit higher level that he would have if we were going four a week rather than three." Once again, BYU will not conduct a traditional spring football game. Mendenhall said that's due to the fact that there aren't enough healthy offensive linemen to field a couple of teams, just like last year. He will conduct an open-to-the-public spring scrimmage on March 30 at 11 a.m.The Cougars are thin there because undersized center Blair Tushaus is leaving the program, while Houston Reynolds, Brock Stringham and Ryker Mathews are trying to overcome injuries. Reynolds isn't back yet from a torn Achilles' tendon, Stringham has a back injury and Mathews is still recovering from offseason surgery.Tui Crichton switched from defense to offense last fall, and will stay with the offense and fight for a starting spot in spring camp along the offensive line. Manaaki Vaitai, who got a lot of time at the end of last season, will get a lot of reps this spring at center, Mendenhall said, perhaps a sign that Houston Reynolds' prognosis for complete recovery is not favorable. Solomone Kafu also got more time as the season progressed and injuries mounted last fall, and the junior will likely be a starter at one of the guard positions this fall. Terrance Alletto, Andrew Crawford, Kyle Johnson, Brad Wilcox, Michael Yeck and Quinn Lawler are also in the hunt for starting spots. Also, former Alta High star Jordan Black is home from a church mission and ready to continue the promise he showed before he left. "We brought in a high number of junior college offensive linemen, for that very reason, so we have enough bodies," Mendenhall said. "We might have enough to have a three-deep, actually, which we haven't had for quite some time. That doesn't mean the majority are scholarship players. So there's a focus to not only get our scholarship and starters established there, but Ryker Mathews has not recovered from surgery to this point. Brock Stringham has a back injury, so both those players will miss the entire spring. And so we have got to get them healthy for the fall, and then you are talking about adding six other players, and so that is eight offensive linemen who won't participate in the spring. But I do think we have enough numbers and players to still function. I will gauge that as we go, but a lot will have to do with how much we are in pads, no pads, and full. I don't anticipate many full scrimmages, maybe just a single full scrimmage I believe it is the third Saturday of our spring practice. But we are going to be working very hard installing, working against each other, and working at a really high level and the risk versus the return of having a lot of scrimmage plays, I am not sure is what this team needs."I asked Mendenhall what he hopes to accomplish this spring in broad terms. His answer:
"It is really three-fold. I would say number one is make sure our team is completely united in regards to the effort that they give on a daily basis, the work ethic they have on a daily basis, and the unity in terms of common goals regardless of offense or defense or special teams. So I think that would be first. Second would be the installation of our new offense, and so having our offensive staff not only establish familiarity with each other, but with the players, but also install the basis for what we are going to do from the offensive perspective. And then I would say the third thing, if I were just to name three, the third thing would be to re-establish, and establish, a strong two-deep on both sides of the football, offense and defense, and that would be including solidifying those roles in the kicking game. There will be more emphasis on punting and kicking this spring than there has been in the past as we lose Riley Stephenson, and after Justin Sorensen's struggles a year ago."