The Cougars new recruiting class of seven wide receivers is, without question, the biggest position upgrade with an immediate positive impact I have seen in many years. The fact that at least three true freshmen will likely see a lot of reps this fall, depending on their continued productivity, says it all.
JC All-American transfer Todd Watkins is everything he was hyped to be – and probably more. He will be to BYU this year what Mike Williams was to USC last season. Fans of future opponents say he's only impressive in BYU practice because our secondary is not as good as theirs. I hope they learn how mistaken they are when Watkins makes them pay the ultimate price – touchdowns!
Other standout JC receivers we will not see this fall because of injury, but have looked impressive in spring or off-season workouts are Michael Morris and Joe Griffin. A fourth, Riley Weber, is scheduled to play.
Watkins, however, isn't the only new receiver that has really impressed me. If an observer were to watch practice once this fall and was asked to point out the upper classmen receivers by practice impressions, they would likely point out true freshman Austin Collie. Everything about Collie, from his physique to the way he runs precise routes and from what I've seen in daily practices, I expect Collie to be a significant contributor this season.
Antwaun Harris, to me, is just a few steps behind Collie – which is amazing since he started playing varsity football last season as a high school senior. Yes, Harris is just playing his second year this year and it's already apparent he's a future BYU wide receiver star-in-the-making. Both he and Collie have game-breaking abilities and athleticism.
Though he is a true freshman special teams' specialist who will also line up at wide receiver, B.J. Mathis has the potential to become one of BYU's most versatile star athletes ever. He is another speedy game-breaker who should see significant playing time this fall.
The old guard of Rod Wilkerson, Jason Kukahiko and Chris Hale have all been solid in camp as well, but their lack of productivity last season caused coaches to aggressively recruit better receiver talent that will take away game snaps from them.
"Guys like Austin Collie, Antwaun Harris and B.J. Mathis are going to help us a lot this year," according to BYU head coach Gary Crowton. They're real game-breakers and I'm impressed at where they're at coming from right out of high school. I feel they mix well with the experience we have with Rod (Wilkerson), Chris Hale, and some of the others."
John Beck has impressed me with his improved ability in visually/mentally going through his reads. Beck is more mobile and has a stronger arm while Berry makes better reads. Beck entered fall camp the designated favorite named by Crowton, but Berry has closed the gap enough that Crowton heads into the final weekend before the season-opener without a starter named for the Notre Dame game.
One area Beck has the overwhelming edge is the support and camaraderie he established among his teammates. He spent many more hours working with offensive teammates during off-season conditioning than any other BYU quarterback. Meanwhile, Berry, who spent part of the summer rehabbing from a major hand injury from last year, surprised many with his significantly better-than-expected showing during fall camp. He has more snap to his passes and he can throw the deep ball effectively again.
Cougar fans may notice a big improvement in the running game this fall because of improved run-blocking by the offensive line. A key contributor for this will be the success of the Cougars revitalized passing game, which will stretch the field and force defenders to stay with dangerous threats at wide receiver and tight end.
"We have guys that can work to spread out the opposing defense, so that helps the run game a lot," Crowton noted. "By spreading out the opposing defense, they're not able to put a lot of guys in the box and that helps open up the running game a lot."
The most important success factor for an improved offensive line is the addition of new position coach Jeff Grimes. He has instilled a new and more aggressive attitude among his young charges. "Coach Grimes is great," says offensive guard Eddie Keele. "He likes us to be aggressive and I love that. We all love that. He's helped us a ton. We all love him."
Look for strong contributions by Junior Kato, R.J. Willing and Travis Bright.
With the loss of projected starters Reynaldo Brathwaite and Marcus Whalen to honor code violations in the off-season, there was obvious concern about the lack of running back depth. However, the fall camp looks from running back Curtis Brown, Naufahu Tahi, Raymond Hudson and Bryce Mahuika have lessened these worries. The intimidating blocking of fullback Moa Peaua will also be an unexpectedly positive factor in the run game. All five are better-than-average receivers out of the backfield – which accentuates the Cougars backfield threat for opponents.
While Brown and Tahi will see most of the carries early, Hudson is expected to see a lot of action push when he is fully familiar with the Cougars rushing attack. Hudson seems to have a lot of Brathwaite-like moves and has a great burst off the ball and excellent instincts for a true freshman running back. Unlike most freshmen running backs, Hudson doesn't dance around or hesitate in the backfield before deciding where to run.
Brown and Tahi have not disappointed at all. Brown, who set a new BYU freshman rushing record in a single game two years ago, is bigger, stronger, and is just as fast as ever. Tahi is the designated power runner of the running backs and has noticeably improved his lateral movement and overall mobility from last season.
With the return of juniors Daniel Marquardt and Manaia Brown from injury, BYU will field possibly its strongest-ever defensive line this fall. A front wall of Nua, Brown, Marquardt, John Denney, Vince Feula, Justin Carlson-Maddux and Michael Marquardt in different combinations will be powerfully effective. Nua and Brown, especially, have been unblockable in fall camp practices. Other linemen like Hala Paongo, T.J. Sitake, Judd Anderton and true freshman Isley Filiaga will provide more than capable backup support.
The acknowledged defensive end star from last year, Brady Poppinga, has been relocated back to his former linebacker position where he will continue to terrorize offenses this fall in a modified role.
Feula looks like he will be a fixture on short-yardage situations sometime this year. He is a strong wide body and will effectively clog up the middle.
BYU lost all its starting 2003 linebackers to graduation, but may be as just as strong this season with starters Cameron Jensen, Justin Luettgerodt and Brady Poppinga leading the charge.
Defensive coordinator Bronco Mendenhall was effusive in his praise of Jensen. "Cameron has given a tremendous effort from day one and hasn't let up. He shows me every day during practice that he will be a great player; and a player that can be a very successful middle linebacker and a leader of this defense." Enough said.
Luettgerodt and Poppinga, on either side, are ferocious hitters with great instincts for the ball. Mendenhall has repeatedly stressed he wants to have his top 11 defenders on the field, regardless of position. Moving Poppinga to linebacker follows on this promise. Poppinga's return to linebacker essentially becomes a traditional 4-3-4 alignment. Mendenhall regularly lines up one of his three linebackers just off the line of scrimmage.
Others expected to play significant minutes this season include Gary Lovely, Markell Staffieri, Dan Bates and Grant Nelson. Lovely has seen a lot of practice reps with the first team and while his athleticism is readily apparent, it's obvious he still needs seasoning and more experience in Mendenhall's demanding defensive system.
True freshmen Turner and Nelson have both seen a lot of reps with the second team linebackers. After looking lost on defense during their first days of practice, Turner and Nelson have come on strong.
The just-announced loss of katback K.C. Bills to a season-ending shoulder injury will hurt. Meanwhile, the Cougars have a solid core of secondary first teamers in Aaron Francisco, Brandon Heaney and Jon Burbidge. Others expected to contribute significantly include Greg Lovely, Nathan Soelberg, Spencer White and Micah Alba.
Newcomer Lovely has been playing well with the second team. He's been consistent and handles man coverage well. Freshmen Karland Bennett and Billy Skinner, if they are not redshirted, should provide adequate backup.
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