Part 3: What did we learn from Spring practice?

It happens virtually every spring. Every year Cougar fans look and hope for a "new breed" of wide receiver rarely, if ever, seen at BYU. This year BYU may or may not finally deliver.

On talent alone, the Cougars may have the deepest, most talented, albeit not as experienced group of receivers it has ever had. They can catch, burn opponents downfield, juke in the open field and use size to their advantage. However, most of them have one variable mentioned frequently throughout Spring Practice.

We feel the talent level at WR, from top to bottom, is better than we've seen for a long while. However, that talent is relatively unproven, undeveloped and, yes, "young."

Toby Christensen is the quintessential BYU receiver. He has average speed, moderate size, good hands and runs solid patterns. He's not going to drop your jaw with open field moves or burning a cornerback downfield on a fly pattern. What he provides is a steady and consistent receiver who knows how to get open and catch a lot of balls underneath the coverage and across the middle.

At Spring practice, it seemed when all else failed, Toby Christensen was there underneath ready to grab the 8-yard pass after completing a hook pattern Christensen was "Mr. Dependable;" someone who served Matt Berry and the other QB's well. They had confidence he would run very precise patterns and be on the same page with them.

David Christensen is another receiver that received a mention from head coach Gary Crowton throughout Spring practice.

"David Christensen started out real well (last season), but then got hurt early on. Him being hurt really hurt us last year. He's really going to help us this next year."

Christensen was injured again this spring, hyper-extending his shoulder and underwent surgery. He should be ready to go come summer two-a-days.

What David Christensen provides the BYU receiving corps is someone that can break open downfield, while also showing the ability to run effective underneath patterns.

One thing Crowton really likes about D. Christensen is his escapability. "He's really quick and fast out there. He moves very well. He's a little like Reno (Mahe) in that he moves very well and can make some guys miss, but might have even a little more speed than Mahe did."

His versatility provides Crowton with another offensive option: "We're really going to take a good look at David Christensen to see what he can do returning punts."

Few receivers generate as much excitement and criticism as Rod Wilkerson has the past two seasons.

Wilkerson returned from his mission almost three years ago slated to play cornerback for the Cougars after having excelled in that position in high school. But one coach signaled "if Gary sees a guy that he thinks he can use on offense, then he'll use him there."

Crowton was impressed with Wilkerson's speed enough to give him a good look last year as receiver. The results were both good and bad.

New to the position, Wilkerson was a raw talent that stretched the field, but had a tendency to drop passes in critical situations. Some teammates quietly referred to him as "50/50", a reflection of how often he caught critical passes thrown his way.

Some of this criticism was unwarranted. Indeed, Wilkerson dropped some passes that he should have caught, but after reviewing last season's performance one cannot accurately state he struggled in this regard more than any other WR in the program. But such perceptions are hard to shake.

Wilkerson had a very good spring this year. After one practice where he caught every ball thrown his way, one attendee jokingly noted that Wilkerson just increased to "70/30."

After making what was probably the best catch of Spring practice with a spectacular one-handed grab in the first full scrimmage, Wilkerson may have become 80/20. All joking aside, Wilkerson showed very good hands throughout the spring.

"I like Wilkerson's speed. He has some good speed on the outside and will help us stretch the field. I also think he's catching the ball a lot better this spring," Crowton said.

Aside from Toby Christensen, the most consistent receiver this spring was Jason Kukahiko. In's current poll question, Kukahiko is the early leader as to who will be BYU's top receiver this year.

Kukahiko's strength comes from the underneath and across the middle patterns that are so crucial in Crowton's offense. He's not going to beat you downfield like some others, but his size and soft hands make him a very valuable possession type WR for the Cougars this season.

"Kukahiko is real solid and real steady. I like his size and how he catches the ball," according to Crowton.

Amid all the talk about incoming WR's like Olomua, Brett Cooper and Cody Fonnesbeck, perhaps the most impressive newcomer this spring was Chris Hale. His consistent play and work ethic has made quite and impression. Having seen him practice all spring, it's easy to see why.

Hale is extremely quick and fast. He did it all in Spring practice and was a favorite target of BYU's quarterbacks. Back up QB John Beck even lamented the fact Hale was not being part of his squad during the Spring game.

Says Crowton: "Chris Hale has been real good. He has good speed. He's able to go vertical and push the defensive backs around, so that will add greatly to what Rod Wilkerson does."

Hale runs very precise patterns and has already established himself as someone the quarterbacks can trust to be where he should be as well as being there in time.

"If Hale had the size that he did and was slow with not very good hands, then I doubt he could do much. But Hale is extremely quick and has very good hands. He's also pretty strong for a guy his size. He just knows how to play and is picking up what we're trying to do with the passing game a lot quicker than some of the other guys," Crowton added.

It seems as if Breyon Jones has been with the program forever, but he's just getting ready to begin what may be a promising Sophomore campaign.

Jones does most things well, but doesn't have anything in particular that would separate himself from the crowded group of good WR's. He has bulked up considerably since last season and has showed well in practice.

Meanwhile, no receiver may have seen more improvement during Spring practice than Brett Cooper. Expectations run high for this highly recruited receiver from Bonneville High School, just south of Ogden.

Crowton noted at the beginning of Spring practice: "I like Cooper's size and strength. He and Olomua have good strength. Olomua is a bit bigger, but Cooper is a bit faster. We like what Cooper is doing.

"Cooper isn't quite as fast as guys like Hale, Wilkerson and Fonnesbeck in running his routes quite yet, but he's fast after he catches the ball. It's something we'll work with him on."

Cooper gradually established himself as a reliable receiver the quarterbacks could depend on getting open and being a legitimate "go-to" WR as practice went on. Every scrimmage it appeared as if Cooper had more balls thrown his way.

Bristol Olomua is a receiver a lot of Cougar faithful look for to buck the trend of slow and small WRs of year's past. While Olomua shows promise, he didn't exactly break through in Spring Practice as a lot of fans were hoping that he would.

Olomua does show a ton of promise though. He's very tall and and has good hands and overall athleticism. He's no stiff. Says Crowton, "Olomua is really, REALLY big. He might not be as fast or as quick as the other guys at this point, but his size is something we like a lot and something we can use."

We look for Olomua to do most of his damage within the redzone this coming season. During his true freshman year, he was seen as a guy that could really prove effective on fade routes in the endzone where he could win many a "jump ball" with smaller CBs. We look for Olomua to continue in this regard as he continues to develop the other facets necessary in becoming what most Cougarfans believe he can be. That being a true NFL prototype WR and BYU hasn't had many of those to be sure.

A number readily comes to mind when discussing Cody Fonnesbeck. That being the number of 4.19. Did he really run that before his mission in the forty?

At a glance, Fonnesbeck could very well lay claim to this astonishing number. The problem with Fonnesbeck is his size. He's tiny.

However, Fonnesbeck showed good ability coming off the line and withstanding blows across the middle on numerous hitches and underneath patterns thrown his way. Fonnesbeck's strength lies in breaking it downfield obviously, but he does show well in the other abilities necessary in becoming a good all-around WR.

Says Crowton, "We really like Fonnesbeck's speed. It's definitely something we think we can use. He's going to be very good at stretching the field for use like Wilkerson did last year."

Matt Smith is a walkon that made some noise at WR in Spring Practice. He has above average size and good hands. He made 5 catches in his first scrimmage and performed very well in the Spring game.

Smith will add valuable depth at the very least. Says Crowton, "Matt Smith has played very well for us. We like what he's shown when he's been given the opportunity."

Marc Hanson is another relatively unknown that did some good things in Spring practice. What may not be known about Hansen is that he was the top WR in the state of Utah out of High School with solid offers on the table from BYU, Utah and other schools. Hanson opted to serve his mission before deciding and chose BYU upon his return.

Ryan Slater continued in his role of third-team star. Grabbing a lot of passes with the second and third teams throughout the spring.

Crowton said it best when summing up this group of WRs as a whole saying, "We really like this group of Wide Receivers. I feel that we have more quickness in this group than we've had in past years. Most of the guys are real young, but we're excited as to what they're doing and they should do some good things in time. They just need a little more experience and some more work."

No, this corps of Wide Receivers knocked nobody's socks off during the Spring game, but if you look closely and read between the lines, one can readily see the overall potential and ability of this current WR corps that includes only one Senior, four Juniors, two Sophomores and four freshmen.

The Tight Ends

The quality of Tight Ends may again force Crowton into the temptation of using those three TE sets that were so foreign to his offensive philosophy before arriving at BYU.

Justin Jory was a guy that could have warranted playing time last season, but instead opted for a redshirt in order to clear some space between him and Gabriel Reid and Spencer Nead. He comes back this season and looks to be a primary go-to guy for Matt Berry.

The first impression of Jory came during last fall in which he concluded the final scrimmage of two-a-days with a diving finger-tip grab of a Berry pass that culminated into a touchdown. Jory continued this practice of finger-tip diving catches a couple of times this spring.

Daniel Coats effectively put on 30+ pounds and looks to have the potential to be one of the best ever Tight Ends ever to play at BYU. With the gained weight comes not much of a drop off in regards to how fluidly he's able to run his patterns.

Coats will cause serious matchup problems in the slot and has looked surprisingly good when blocking off of the Line of Scrimmage.

The one word to describe Coats' movement out on the field would be effortless. He moves so well for a guy of his size and those early comparisons to Shannon Sharpe just my prove warranted in Coats' not too distant future.

Aissac Aiono may be the friendliest player on the team. He's very accessible and always affable. He's also a very good football player to boot.

After a promising Freshman campaign, Aiono looks to improve on what may be considered a disappointing Sophomore campaign.

Says Aiono, "I think I played ok last year, but I definitely know that I can play better. I dropped some passes I shouldn't have, but I'm determined not to do that this year."

A Tight End that has shown to have very good hands and good movement early on is the recently returned from a mission Jeramie Gillespie.

Phil Niu was a guy that received a scholarship at Tight End after originally signing a letter of intent with Colorado St. before his LDS mission.

Niu should be afforded a redshirt when considering the quality of depth already established at Tight End. Niu looks to be a bit more slight than the others in his physique, but has great movement and good hands. He looks to be primarily a pass-catching TE.

Says Empey about this group of Tight Ends, "We are farther ahead right now at the tight end position at the end of spring than I anticipated we would be. Overall I have been real happy with the way they have stepped up. I have a lot of confidence and there is a lot of potential there."

Adds Daniel Coats confidently, "The guys before us were real good, but I think we can pass them up."

© 2003

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