By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: The BYU Cougars started off with a bang last season when they opened up the new Cowboys Stadium in Dallas with a thrilling 14-13 win over third-ranked Oklahoma. Granted, the Sooners had to finish the game
without Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford who was knocked out for the season
on a hit by Coleby Clawson, but still the Cougars were fighting an uphill
battle against one of the most successful college football programs in recent
memory. Quarterback Max Hall, one of the top returning offensive stars in the
Mountain West Conference, finished the outing by throwing for 329 yards and a
pair of touchdowns, one being a seven-yard effort to McKay Jacobson with just
over three minutes remaining in regulation.
The nationally-ranked Cougars went on to crush Tulane on the road as well,
54-3, but then got a wake-up call from Florida State in a sloppy 54-28 loss in
the home opener in Provo in the middle of September. From there, BYU and head
coach Bronco Mendenhall had to work its way back to respectability and they
did that by stringing together fourth straight wins against the likes of
Colorado State, Utah State, UNLV and San Diego State, by which point BYU was
ranked sixth in the nation in scoring with almost 39 ppg. But the true test
for the Cougars came in late October when they hosted eighth-ranked TCU, one
of the last opponents standing in the way of BYU taking the regular season
title in the Mountain West. Unfortunately, there was little celebration during
Homecoming for the Cougars that day as they completely lost focus in a 38-7
setback. However, the miserable effort did serve as a reminder for the Cougars
that there was still work to be done and the team used the opportunity to put
together a four-game win streak to close out the regular season and then
demolish Oregon State during the Las Vegas Bowl, 44-20.
Hall guided his team to a record of 11-2 and a 7-1 mark in MWC play and even
though the signal-caller is no longer with the program, he has the school
starting up the 2010 campaign on a five-game win streak.
OFFENSE: "In the media there's always some key position that we're replacing,
there's always some key person that we've got to find and that's something
that I think is unique to BYU," lineman Matt Reynolds says about filling the
void left by key departures. "We've always got people to put in those spots,
we've always got people we can trust because of the type of person that is
attracted to BYU."
Reynolds may be trying to make the transition from Max Hall sound easier than
it is because he doesn't want to shake things up in Provo. If the team were to
go with experience, the position then belongs to Riley Nelson, a junior who
saw action in seven games last season. But more than a passer, Nelson made an
impression in 2009 by gaining 122 yards and scoring three times on the ground.
Also up for consideration in the early going for the Cougars are Jake Heaps
and James Lark.
"I'm a big believer in the collective, while its a much more compelling story
to talk about the individual, that's really not the way I operate," coach
Mendenhall has said when asked about replacing key parts on offense. "We have
four quality quarterbacks, I don't know which one will play yet. We have
probably five quality running backs, I'm not sure which one will carry the
It would have been a lot easier if three-year starter Harvey Unga was still
around, but his departure and that of Manase Tonga means the Cougars will also
be searching for fresh legs to carry the ball coming out of the backfield in
2010 as well. JJ Di Luigi and Bryan Kariya figure heavily into the transition
phase, especially since Di Luigi proved he can be a valuable asset in the
passing game as well after posting four receiving TDs.
The other position of concern for BYU is at tight end where Mike Muehlmann and
Devin Mahina, both of whom are only freshmen, will be battling for playing
DEFENSE: The Cougars need to replace some men along the defensive line, but
that doesn't mean that the players that they will be turning to are completely
inexperienced. Nevertheless, coming up with a replacement for all-conference
performer Jan Jorgensen, as well as Brett Denney will be a huge undertaking
that must be met with patience.
In the middle of the line the Cougars will anchoring themselves to junior
Romney Fuga who still has a bit of football left in him after taking a break
for a mission trip. The same can be said for Eathyn Manumaleuna who is also
getting back to life on the gridiron following his missionary obligations as
well. Matt Putnam appears to be ready to take over the right end position.
Unfortunately, the linebacking crew has the same issues as the front line,
having to fill several holes left by Matt Bauman, Shawn Doman and Coleby
Clawson. Jordan Pendleton is ready to go again at strong side linebacker and
will be teaching some new faces how to both get to the quarterback up the
field as well as drop back into coverage. Jordan Atkinson, a transfer from
Diablo Valley Junior College, is ready to play more regularly after backing up
The pass defense for the Cougars was a bit shaky last season, allowing close
to 220 ypg and ranking in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West, but as
long as Andrew Rich and Brian Logan are ready to reprise their roles deep down
the field, having combined for half of the unit's 14 interceptions a season
ago, things should move along smoother for the squad.
SPECIAL TEAMS: For the last few years the offense for the Cougars has been
handled rather well by Hall, which meant a guy like Mitch Payne was not going
to see that much action as a kicker, but that could all change in 2010. Last
year Payne made good on 10-of-14 field goal attempts, his long coming from 49
yards. However, if Nelson and the revamped offense have trouble moving the
ball it will make Payne's job that much harder and will probably require the
Cougars to opt for their punter a little more often. Last season, BYU kicked
away just 42 times, compared to 63 punts by the competition, so punter Riley
Stephenson had better be ready for more of a workout this time around. O'Neill
Chambers handled the majority of both the kickoff and punt returns last
season, but expect to see Di Luigi get some cracks at the former as well.
OUTLOOK: "I'm completely confident the pieces will fall into place when
they're supposed to," coach Mendenhall says when talking of his team's
restructuring. "That can't be rushed. My job is just to design a program to
give us our very best chance to play very good football as fast as possible."
Of the four non-conference opponents on the BYU schedule this year, two of
them (Washington and Florida State) have the advantage in the all-time series
versus the Cougars. However, the Washington program has to visit Provo in the
season opener and the meeting with Florida State will be a revenge game
following BYU's disappointing showing against the Seminoles last year at home.
The 54-28 loss to FSU was also one of the worst home losses ever for the
Cougars, so they certainly have the motivation to strike back. Outside of MWC
meetings with TCU and Utah, both of which are on the road unfortunately, the
other true test for the Cougars will be taking place versus Nevada at home on
September 25. In the Wolf Pack, the BYU defense will be trying to shut down
one of the more innovative and aggressive offenses in the country, driven by
an option quarterback who could carve up the Cougars if his arm has improved
this year. Having such uncertainty at key offensive positions will see many
battles for playing time and while that's generally a healthy thing among
teammates, it might not translate into immediate success in real game
It was announced recently that BYU will leave the Mountain West after this
season, choosing to be an Independent in football and joining the Western
Athletic Conference in all other sports. The Cougars previously belonged to
the WAC from 1962-99 before moving to the new MWC when it was formed in 1999.