Though disturbing question marks remain about how ready and effective BYU's offensive line will be this fall, there is no doubt the Cougars have a ready-for-prime-time offensive star in junior wide receiver Todd Watkins, a JC first team All-American last year.
Considered one of the top three JC wide receiver recruits in the country prior to national signing day Feb. 4, the 6-3 Watkins has lived up to all the hype in practice and again Saturday, hauling in five receptions for 103 yards and one touchdown on Saturday. The junior, with 4.28/40 speed, could have ended the day with close to 200 yards, seven receptions and two touchdowns if everything had gone his way.
A bad "incomplete pass" call by a referee robbed Watkins of a 50-yard reception from quarterback Matt Berry. Another incomplete pass was a great last-second tip-away in the end zone by cornerback Nathan Soelberg -- that would have given Watkins his second touchdown of the day.
Despite a watered-down, plain vanilla offense scheme, Watkins still showed BYU fans what Crowton and assistant Lance Reynolds were figuratively drooling over when they recruited and landed him against stiff competition. BYU's No. 1 defense knew the quarterbacks were going to throw long to Watkins and they still couldn't stop or slow him down.
With Watkins spinning his speedy wheels, the long-lost BYU vertical game of old is officially back in Provo. Unlike last year, defenses will be foolish to stack the line of scrimmage without double-teaming Watkins or specifically game-planning against BYU's new one-man, game-breaking threat.
Indeed, Watkins' effectiveness or threat will open up the tight ends and short passing game somewhat IF the Cougar quarterbacks can deliver the ball on time and on the mark and IF the offensive line provide the quarterbacks enough time to do their damage.
Another offensive bright spot was another JC transfer wide receiver, Michael Morris, who also has the speed to stretch the defense. Although he will be used differently, albeit less spectacularly, within the offense on shorter routs and a trick play here and there, Morris demonstrated his ability to get open downfield, but was overthrown in the end zone. He ended the day with two receptions for eight yards.
On the quarterback front, sophomore John Beck emerged as the No. 1 gun from spring practice. Crowton said he will not name his designated starter yet, but Beck shined brightest. He completed 10 of 18 passes for 171 yards, the longest being a 50-yard touchdown toss to Watkins.
With a full year's seasoning under his belt, Beck appeared more poised and used his offensive weapons more effectively. He did not throw any interceptions against the first team defense and he avoided many of his rookie mistakes of last season. That said, Beck still has a lot to improve on.
Berry's clear advantage over Beck and other Cougar quarterbacks is his ability to read and react to defensive alignments faster than anyone else.
On the first play of the game, offensive line center, Lance Reynolds, Jr., rolled his ankle and was sidelined the rest of the scrimmage. Senior backup center, Hanale Vincent, struggled with low shotgun snaps and clearly affected Berry, at 6-5, with his timing and rhythm – which then appeared to impact his confidence. Beck, 6-2, fared much better on exchanges with Vincent, having practiced regularly with him on the second team last year.
In fairness to Berry, he would have performed much better with Reynolds under center. Berry finished the day with 6-12 completions and one interception.
J.C transfer Jason Beck fared well on the day going against the second team defense, completing 7-13 attempts. His outing was marred by a Quinn Gooch interception that he ran back 40 yards for the opposition touchdown. Jason's longest completion was a 28-yard pass to sophomore Jeremy Gillespie, who joins a long line of impressive Cougar tight ends.
Though sophomore starter Daniel Coats caught two passes in heavy traffic for a total of 30 yards against the first team defense, Gillespie also caught two passes for 42 yards on the day.
After a controlled drive by Jason Beck, 6-4, 210-pound wide receiver newcomer Dennis Pitta got some second-team action as the recipient of a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jason. Another promising walk-on receiver, Zac Collie, 5-10,175 pounds, also got into the action with a 20-yard reception.
Other lesser-known wideout contributors were Matt Smith, a 6-2, 185 pound sophomore, who led the second team receiving corps with three receptions for 43 yards. JC transfer walk-on David Gooch, Quinn's older brother, used his 6-3 height advantage and good possession skills by catching three passes for 27 yards. Rounding out the group was 6-0, 184-pound Aaron Gordon, who caught three passes for 25 yards on the day.
Sophomore Curtis Brown was the main bright spot at running back, averaging a little over four yards a carry. He ended the game with only 17 yards on four attempts and caught two passes out of the backfield for 23 yards.
Junior Naufahu Tahi received the bulk of the carries with the first team offense, but only generated 19 yards on eight carries. Clearly, this was a day for the passing game.
The backfield addition of former Cougar linebacker / defensive lineman Moa Peaua, a junior, gave BYU fans a crowd-pleasing, eye-popping glimpse of how effective their new 265-pound fullback with a 4.7/40 can be as a receiver.
The former Nevada All-State tight end / linebacker who received Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year honors, appears to have found a productive new home on offense. Gasps were heard Saturday when Peaua, after catching a toss out of the backfield, turned on the jets and rounded the corner on the defense for a 26-yard dash. Some stood in anticipation to see what happens when a 265-pound big-boned muscle mass with a full head of steam meets three pursuing defensive backs. The result was one of the offensive highlights of the day – and the fans loved it.
Along the offensive line, a few new names saw some action. Highly recruited freshman offensive lineman, Junior Kato, recently returned from his LDS mission and saw action with the second team. What Kato lacked in polished technique, he made up with his tenacity and effort. He always hustled downfield looking for someone to hit. With time under BYU strength coach, Jay Omer, and offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, Kato should emerge as a solid future offensive line contributor.
Alongside Kato were other notable offensive line newcomers on the second team unit like sophomore Joe Cozzens, junior Nate Hall, sophomore David Sollami, and J.C transfer Nick Longshore.
Expected left tackle starter Jake Kuresa did not suit up because of injuries. Instead, 6-4, 290-pound freshman, R.J. Willing, was battle-tested by Michael Marquardt, who managed three quarterback sacks on him. Overall, the first team offensive line had its ups and downs. The line still had some excellent moments opening wholes for Curtis Brown and provided time for the quarterbacks to find their rhythm within the passing scheme.
Mendenhall's defense applied plenty of pressure on the quarterbacks with confusing blitzes and defensive shifts of dropping defensive linemen into linebacker positions and vise versa. The $64,000 question is whether Grimes is able to mold and meld his offensive line unit with sufficient depth before the first game of the season against defending national champion USC.
Whatever, happens, BYU fans will see all the cogs unleashed by Crowton and his assistants who won't be holding back on the reins.
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