With the influx of Todd Watkins and the apparently superior incoming junior college and high school talent at wide receiver, most Cougar fans expect to see greater passing productivity in all areas. Some of our returning veterans will also benefit, as will BYU's designated quarterback.
To gain a more complete perspective, I closely reviewed last year's passing yards statistics (byucougars.com/football/stats.pdf) to determine which returning receivers, tight ends and running backs were most effective in producing yards-per-catch or touchdowns.
I ignored total catches because many of them were for just a few yards, with no first downs. Yards-per-catch stats, I figured, captured how vertical or non-vertical we were as a team. There were some surprises:
Average-yards-per-catch: A look at the top six returning receivers from all positions who moved the ball vertically downfield the most (including yards-after-the-catch) revealed:
(1) Freshman tight end Phillip Niu was tops with 8 catches for 19.0 yards-per-catch as a backup His output is exceptional for a true freshman straight off his LDS mission. Niu just needs to get over the injury bug.
(2) Junior receiver Rod Wilkerson had 21 catches for 13.0 yards-per-catch. You expect more catches, more yards per catch, and more touchdownss (zero) from your starting and fastest wide receiver.
(3) Freshman tight end Daniel Coats had 30 catches for 12.6 yards-per-catch. Good production even though these stats don't reflect the critical drops he experienced later last season. However, these averages are not bad. Any team in the MWC would love this kind of production from a freshman.
(4) Junior receiver Jason Kukahiko had 11 catches for 12.6 yards-per-catch. Injured most of the year, this is a respectable average for a possession wide receiver.
(5) Sophomore running back Naufahu Tahi had 14 catches for 10.3 yards-per-catch. He didn't have the ball thrown to him that often, but this is a fine average per catch for a running back. It suggests he's open a lot, escaping or breaking a first tackle frequently.
(6) Sophomore wide receiver Chris Hale had 33 catches for 8.7 yards-per-catch. You expect more catches, a much higher average per catch, and more touchdowns (zero) from one of your primary wideout starters.
In touchdown production, Coats led the group with four touchdowns on 30 catches – or one touchdown per 7.5 catches. He was followed by Tahi with two touchdowns on 14 catches – or one touchdown per 7.0 catches. Niu rounded out the top three with two touchdowns on 8 catches – or one touchdown per 4.0 catches.
For the times the ball was accurately thrown in their direction, this is good touchdown production per number of catches for these three young players. In the red zone, they got open more and they held on to the ball. All three return. Coats, Tahi and Niu accounted for 8 of BYU's 13 passing touchdowns last season.
The most puzzling or troubling statistic? The least productive TD/catch ratio of these six offensive players was Chris Hale with 33 catches for zero touchdowns. That may or may not indicate he's easy to cover in the red zone for whatever reason. Maybe he's not even on the field in the red zone and is expected to score from 40 or 30 yards out. I'll be watching him closely this fall.
For the upcoming season, I have established my own arbitrary criteria to determine when BYU's once-feared vertical passing attack returns: the number of 30-plus yard pass plays per half. The Cougars will REALLY be cooking if they average two per half. Getting three per game would be phenomenal.
This is probably meaningless, but this is what it looks like when you rank the top six by their longest passing gain for last season: Wilkerson, long of 56; Coats, long of 38; Tahi, long of 35; Niu, long of 29; Hale, long of 26; Kukahiko, long of 26.
The addition of JC All-American Todd Watkins and other new receivers could significantly increase BYU's pass-catching productivity. More importantly, they will limit or eliminate playing time from the least productive players from last year. It's a great thing to have that kind of game-breaking threat again at BYU. Indeed, the average yardage per game, average per catch, touchdowns per game, number of 20-plus yard plays and the number of 30-plus yard passing plays should increase.
These statistics demonstrate why Cougar running backs and tight ends should be a dangerous weapon this year. If Watkins and other more productive receivers are pulling defenders to either side of the field, these players could easily bust one anytime for 15, 20 or 25 yards – and hopefully ore touchdowns.
Overall, these six returning players still had some productivity last season in one of the most anemic passing attacks BYU has ever seen. One thing is for certain: some had better improve a lot or they will be watching more games from the sideline.
The good news is that BYU's gridiron hopes are predictably brighter in Provo. The Cougars hit bottom last year, but I expect some great defensive and offensive performances in the next few years.
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