For a second straight season BYU went 8-5, but the Cougars followed two different roads to get there.
Last season, the offense carried the load as the Cougars finished 10th in the country in rushing and 14th in total offense and went 8-4 in the regular season, including a convincing victory over then-No. 15 Texas in Provo, Utah following a brutal rainstorm. However, the season ended with a loss as BYU couldn’t get past Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl.
Even with that setback, Bronco Mendenhall has led his team to at least seven victories in each of the past eight seasons and a bowl game in all nine he’s been in charge. The Cougars will have a lot of experienced players returning this season with a total of 14 starters on both sides of the ball but also lost some key personnel that will need to be replaced if they want to maintain their recent level of success.
Taysom Hill’s progression as a passer.
There’s no quarterback controversy in Provo, Utah. Hill, a junior, is the unquestioned starter and leader of BYU’s offense. One of the most dynamic dual threats in the country, Hill finished among the top 25 rushers in FBS with 1,344 yards on the ground. He also threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 19 touchdowns, but there’s still plenty of room for growth in this area.
He completed less than 54 percent of his passes on the season and also tossed 14 interceptions. On four different occasions last season, he completed fewer than half of his pass attempts in a game and, not surprisingly, the Cougars went just 1-3 in those contests.
Hill and talented junior running back Jamaal Williams form a potent one-two punch on the ground, but the offense needs the passing game to keep defenses honest. Entering his second full season as the starter, it’s up to the junior quarterback to take that next step in his development as a quarterback or otherwise opposing defenses may focus their efforts on keeping him in the pocket instead of letting him beat them with his legs.
Mendenhall and his staff also will have to figure out who is going to backup Hill since Ammon Olsen, who saw action in four games last season, announced in January he was transferring to Southern Utah University. With just one scholarship quarterback (Billy Green) and a group of walk-ons left to compete for the No. 2 job, this spring could prove critical as it relates to the future of the quarterback position.
Identifying reliable targets.
The foundation of BYU’s offense is pretty well set with Hill and Williams in the backfield and all five starters returning along the line. However, that is where the stability ends as the Cougars saw their top three wide receivers graduate, including all-time leading pass-catcher Cody Hoffman.
The returning leading receiver is junior Mitch Mathews, who caught 23 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns last season. He is expected to team with senior Ross Apo to serve as two of Hill’s primary targets, but some other receivers will need to step up. Help could be on the way in the form of UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie and junior college transfers Devon Blackmon and Nick Kurtz. Kurtz has a leg up on the other two, as he will participate in spring practice with Leslie and Blackmon coming in the summer.
With only four scholarship receivers participating in the spring, Kurtz could end up seeing plenty of starter reps and solidify his position on the depth chart by the time fall camp rolls around. Whatever happens between now and the season opener on Aug. 29, this much is certain – BYU’s receiving corps will feature plenty of new faces.
Starting over at linebacker.
With the amount of production and experience BYU lost at wide receiver, it pales in comparison to the rebuilding job Mendenhall and defensive coordinator Nick Howell ahead of them when it comes to their linebacking corps. Besides losing playmaker Kyle Van Noy to graduation, the Cougars also bid farewell to fellow starters Uani Unga and Tyler Beck. This trio was responsible for nearly a quarter of the team’s total tackles last season and about 35 percent of all stops made behind the line of scrimmage.
Senior Alani Fua is back to lead the group, but the other returnees at the position made just five starts combined last season. Developing this group is obviously one of the staff’s priorities this spring, as running back Michael Alisa, who has rushed for nearly 800 yards in his BYU career, is slated to make the switch to linebacker.
Additional reinforcements are on the way in the form of incoming freshmen and returning missionaries, but between now and the first game of the season in late August, this linebacking corps will be a fluid situation to say the least.
2014 Early Projection: 9-3
For nearly a decade, Bronco Mendenhall’s team has consistently been good for at least eight wins each season and I don’t expect that to change this fall. As an independent, BYU has one of the trickier schedules in the nation and 2014 is no different. Starting with the season opener on the road at Connecticut and finishing with the finale at California, BYU will travel nearly 15,000 miles round-trip and visit six different states in a span of three months.
There are some familiar foes on the docket, as the Cougars will play seven teams they faced in 2013. They went 6-1 against these opponents last season with the only loss coming against Virginia on the road. This time, the Cavaliers come to Provo, Utah, as does Houston, Utah State, Nevada, UNLV and Savannah State. Also, the likes of Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Utah and Wisconsin have been replaced by the Washington Huskies, California Golden Bears, UNLV Rebels and UCF Golden Knights. Even with the loss of production at both wide receiver and linebacker, BYU has plenty of offensive talent and enough experience on defense returning to fare no worse than it did last season. In fact, if everything comes together, the Cougars could wind up with double-digit wins by season’s end.
Even with the loss of production at both wide receiver and linebacker, BYU has plenty of offensive talent and enough experience on defense returning to fare no worse than it did last season. In fact, if everything comes together, the Cougars could wind up with double-digit wins by season’s end.
Eric Purdy is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow Eric on Twitter at Eric Purdy@AquaDun.