Provo • BYU plays at Connecticut in its 2014 football season opener four weeks from Friday, but as the Cougars begin training camp in coach Bronco Mendenhall’s 10th season at the helm, another East Coast program dominates their mindset.
That would be Virginia.
The Cavaliers don’t visit Provo until Sept. 20, but BYU’s rallying cry in camp could very well be “Remember Virginia” as the Cougars vow to start better in 2014 than they did in 2013 when they traveled to Charlottesville for an opener and were surprised 19-16 in a lightning-delayed game most observers say they should never have lost.
So, the goal at camp will be to hit the ground running, something BYU has not done well under Mendenhall, if early season results are examined closely. The Cougars are just 23-16 in games played before October in Mendenhall’s tenure. Sure, BYU had won six straight season openers before last year’s collapse against the Cavaliers, but the rest of September has generally not gone well.
BYU has started the season 1-2 in six of Mendenhall’s nine seasons.
At least this year, offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s uptempo attack isn’t still being installed. And the entire coaching staff returns completely intact after the great offensive overhaul of early 2013. What’s more, quarterback Taysom Hill is back for what should be a strong junior season if his throwing accuracy has improved and he stays healthy.
Anae often referred to his offense last year as a marathon that was just beginning, and it struggled mightily in the red zone. But he was far more optimistic at June’s media day than he was a year ago.
“Looking forward to just a couple minor tweaks, the biggest of which will be personnel,” he said, confidently, and later noted that the Cougars will be able to throw deep more this year, due to better speed.
New faces in key places will be another theme of camp, as BYU welcomes back at least 18 returned missionaries, linebacker Zac Stout (from off-field issues that got him kicked off the team) and a good assortment of transfers from junior colleges and four-year programs.
The receiving corps has benefitted the most. Seniors Jordan Leslie of UTEP, Keanu Nelson of Stanford and juco transfers Nick Kurtz (Grossmont CC) and Devon Blackmon (Riverside) will try to step in and replace Cody Hoffman, JD Falslev and Skyler Ridley. Veterans Mitch Mathews and Ross Apo are back after injuries cut short their seasons in 2013.
With an experienced quarterback, a deep group of receivers and Williams eying school rushing records, the only big questions on offense center on the line, which players say is going to be meaner, nastier, than it was last year.
Ten offensive linemen who started at least one game last year are back, and former defensive lineman Tuni Kanuch has made the switch to the OL. Coach Garett Tujague should have 18 adequate choices for his five starting spots.
Having made the decision to hand over the defensive play-calling reins to defensive coordinator Nick Howell, Mendenhall said he has spent considerable time working with the offensive line since spring camp began. One priority is to improve efficiency in the red zone; failure to score touchdowns when they were close to the end zone last year cost the Cougars dearly in losses to Virginia, Utah, Notre Dame and Washington.
Defensively, coaches will be looking to find a free safety to run with senior Craig Bills, who has moved into Daniel Sorensen’s kat safety position. Candidates include Nebraska transfer Harvey Jackson, senior Skye PoVey and sophomores Kai Nacua and Dallin Leavitt.
Other defensive position battles will occur at buck and mike linebacker, where Manoa Pikula and Stout emerged as the frontrunners, respectively, out of spring camp, but will be pushed for playing time by a group that includes Austin Heder, Jheremmya Leuta-Douyere and Toloa’i Ho Ching. Bronson Kaufusi and Alani Fua seemingly have the outside linebacker spots sewn up, but highly touted recruits Tyler Cook, Fred Warner and Troy Hinds, a returned missionary from Davis High, could make pushes for spots on the two-deep.
This week’s BYU camp schedule
Friday • Newcomers begin practice at 3:50 p.m.; veterans join them at 4:20 p.m. Closed to the public.
Saturday • Practice begins at 10:30 a.m. at the outdoor practice facility and is open to the public.
BYU camp primer
Worth watching • Taysom Hill got married in the offseason, but he also spent a lot of time working on his passing accuracy and studying film of NFL quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick. If Hill can improve his passing efficiency, especially in the red zone, the Cougars could have a big year offensively.
Key areas • The Cougars have to replace the middle of their defense, as nose tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna, run-stopper Uani Unga and safety Daniel Sorensen all graduated. Those are key positions on a defense that coach Bronco Mendenhall will still oversee, although he’s handed the play-calling reins to Nick Howell.
New faces • There are a lot of them with college experience, as BYU lured immediately eligible transfers from UTEP (receiver Jordan Leslie), Stanford (receiver Keanu Nelson), Nebraska (safety Harvey Jackson), Grossmont College (receiver Nick Kurtz) and Oregon/Riverside CC (receiver Devon Blackmon).