Oct 25, 2013; Provo, UT, USA; Boise State Broncos quarterback Grant Hedrick (top center) fights for yardage as he is tackled by Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Manoa Pikula (22) during the first half at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Can the BYU Cougars overcome another rebuilt defense?


Nov 30, 2013; Reno, NV, USA; BYU cougars quarterback Taysom Hill dives for a first down in the first half of their NCAA football game with Nevada Wolf Pack at MacKay Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen/USA TODAY Sports. BYU won 28-23.

After a bright start (10-3) on their foray into the Independent ranks in 2011, the Cougars have slipped back towards the middle of the road, finishing 8-5 the last two seasons. Last season was particularly disappointing, as a defense that was downright nasty in 2012 struggled at times, particularly against the run. The defense certainly wasn’t the biggest issue, as they kept games within reach; instead an offensive problem was the cause – quarterback Taysom Hill. In his first full season at the helm, Hill was brilliant at times, especially as a runner, but he struggled against the tougher defenses on his schedule. In the Cougars 8 wins, Hill completed 61% of his passes; in the 5 losses he completed just 44.4%. BYU aren’t too far from being the team they desire to be. Will 2014 be the season they make that breakthrough?

 

Offense

Oct 25, 2013; Provo, UT, USA; Brigham Young Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) runs with the ball during the second half against the Boise State Broncos at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Brigham Young won 37-20. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It’s all down to Hill. Last season, despite his struggles, Hill still passed for 2942 yards and 19 TDs, although he also threw 14 interceptions. He was far more of a threat on the ground, rushing for 1344 yards and 10 scores. The junior really needs to work on his consistency as a passer, but if he can improve in this area, he could be a dark horse Heisman candidate. Hill won’t have to carry the ground game on his own either, as Jamaal Williams will be back to provide a foil. Williams may have drawn the wrong kind of attention in March, but it hasn’t affected his standing with the team. Last season, he rushed for 1233 yards and 7 TDs, and chipped in with 18 receptions. Paul Lasike added 351 yards and a score and also returns. The offensive line, led by left tackle Michael Yeck, had its concerns too. The run blocking was great, providing big holes for both Hill and the running backs, but they also allowed 38 sacks. A number of these can be attributed to blocking for a (young) mobile quarterback, but the line certainly wasn’t perfect either. At receiver, school all-time leader Cody Hoffman had an “off-year” with 57 receptions for 894 yards and 5 TDs, but he was still the top threat at the position. Skyler Ridley, JD Falslev and Mitch Mathews all contributed.

Despite returning 8 starters in 2013, BYU had a relatively young offensive unit. The good news is, most of those starters are back. Hill and Williams will again lead the fray, but Hill needs to continue to grow as a passer, and Williams needs to stay out of the headlines. Speaking of consistency, the offensive line needs to work on that too. Last season, only Yeck started every game, and even he played 2 different positions (RT). Solomone Kafu and De’Ondre Wesley started the majority of the season at left guard and right tackle respectively, and should continue to. Edward Fusi and Terrance Alletto split time at center, and will duke it out in camp for the right to start this year. Kyle Johnson will get some competition from Ryker Mathews at right guard, if Mathews doesn’t slide outside. The depth looks a lot better than last year’s, with plenty of starting experience throughout the unit. The Cougars lose their top 3 receivers from 2013, plus tight end Kaneakua Friel – that’s 141 total receptions – but may be even better off. Mathews ended the season on injured reserve, but could be ready to take over the mantle of top target from Hoffman. Also on board is Ross Apo, who never quite matched his potential, and UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie (44-612-7), who is eligible to play straight away. JUCO Devon Blackmon still needs some polish, but he could turn out to be the best of the bunch. Brett Thompson is the heir apparent to Friel, but there are some nice alternatives.

 

Defense

As mentioned, the defense was down from 2012, but wasn’t the primary reason for the 5 losses. In fact, they allowed only 24 points per loss, hardly out of reach for their offense. The unit was strong on 3rd downs and in the redzone, allowing just 25 TDs in 47 attempts. The defensive line wasn’t asked to do a whole lot more than keep blockers off the linebackers, but they were a solid bunch. Eathyn Manumaleuna is better suited to defensive end, but played all season at nose tackle, making the all-Independent team for his troubles. End Bronson Kaufusi showed some pass rush ability with 4 sacks. The linebackers were the strength of the defense, and all-everything Kyle Van Noy was the star of the show on the weakside. Of Van Noy’s 67 tackles, 17 were in opponents’ backfields, and 4 were sacks. He was also credited with 10 quarterback hurries, 7 passes broken up, and he picked off a couple of passes (1 TD). A busy boy, then. Opposite him, Alani Fua was also strong against the pass, breaking up 9 passes and intercepting 2 (1 TD). In the middle, Uani’ Unga allowed the outside linebackers free rein as he racked up an impressive 138 tackles, but Spencer Hadley was in and out of the lineup thanks to a mixture of suspension and injury. Tyler Beck and Austen Jorgensen split time in his stead. The secondary struggled at times, due in no small part to an injury to star corner Jordan Johnson before the season even began. A combination of Skye PoVey and Mike Hague endeavored to replace the all-Independent Johnson. At least JUCO Robertson Daniel was able to hold down one side of the field. Strong safety Daniel Sorensen did the same in middle, breaking up 12 passes, and intercepting 2, while free safety Craig Bills had 78 tackles and another couple of picks.

2014 will be another rebuilding year for the Cougar defense, with far too many key components moving on. The defensive line returns end Remington Peck, but loses Manumaleuna to graduation and Kaufusi to linebacker. Marques Johnson was Manumaleuna’s reserve last season, and saw increased reps as the season progressed. He should be the new starter at nose. Linebacker is the biggest concern with only Fua returning. Manoa Pikula made some nice plays as a reserve last season (4 TFLs, 4 PBUs) and is a shoo-in at one of the inside spots. The rest of the options are trying to catch up. Jherremya Leuta-Douyere has seen action on the outside, but he’s switching inside. Kaufusi could replace Van Noy on the weakside. The secondary looks to be in good shape. Sorenson will be greatly missed, but everyone else is back, including Johnson, who’ll be a year removed from his injury when the season kicks off. Bills will replace Sorenson, while Daniel will take over at free safety. Also returning from injury this season is Trent Trammell, who looked a star in the making before a knee injury ruled him out before the season began. PoVey and Hague will also be back, and they will likely perform better in a reserve role.

 

Special Teams

Justin Sorensen had been an average-at-best placekicker over the first couple of years of his career, but he hit a school record 21 of 26 field goals, with a long of 45, last season. He still missed a couple of easy kicks (one of which was blocked), but he was reliable. Scott Arellano was a decent punter, grossing 41 yards and dropping 28 inside the 20 (10 touchbacks), but he had a slow getoff and had 3 punts blocked. Kick returner Adam Hine was consistent, averaging over 27 yards per effort and breaking a 90-yarder. Falslev started hot as a punt returner, taking one back for a score against MTSU, but he was slowing down before a broken hand spoiled the rest of his season. The punt coverage was solid, but the kick coverage was poor, allowing 2 TDs.

Sorensen picked a bad year to come good (not literally), as now the Cougars need to replace him. Corey Edwards is the only scholarship placekicker, and he’s coming back from a mission. There are other options, but if the competition is close, Edwards’ scholarship may give him the edge. Arellano is back at punter, but he does need to show a little more haste when punting. Hines will return kicks again, but a punt returner needs to be found. Keep an eye on Blackmon here – this could be his meal ticket while he grows as a receiver.

 

Prediction

There is little doubt that if Hill can take a big step forward as a passer (and stay healthy) this season, the offense will rock no matter who is catching passes. The rest of the unit is in great shape. On defense, the playmakers and leaders need to be replaced, but BYU never seems to be lacking in this department, particularly at linebacker. There needs to be some focus on special teams, as the team can’t afford any headaches here. The schedule has some tough games – Texas in Texas, Houston at home, UCF in Florida and Boise State in Boise – but if the defense can perform at even last year’s level, particularly on 3rd downs and in the redzone, 10, or even 11, wins (including bowl) is well within their reach.

 

Tags: BYU Cougars Independents Jamaal Williams Manoa Pikula Taysom Hill

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