First, there is unbridled optimism as the team looks great and the fans have a desire to see the Cougars win. But then, the first practice reports start to filter in. Player B is not mentioned in a report and the concern is that he must not be performing up to expectation. Then they read that Player Y went down with an undetermined injury and more worries start to creep in.
Finally, they read that Player U was nearly invisible during a scrimmage and nearly all hope could be abandoned by this point. Only the most stout and optimistic of fans can maintain their initial excitement throughout fall camp. For those who are apt to lose faith, here are several reasons and questions full of hell, fire and damnation that BYU fans should fear the arrival of the 2006 football season.
The Defense: This is where the season will or will not be made. There are questions galore on this side of the ball.
Take the defensive line for instance. There is only one player with any real experience in this unit, and last year Hala Poanga was consistently taken out of plays. Kyle Luekenga did see some action, but he too was largely ineffective in his handful of plays.
Everyone else who figures to get some playing time is either a true or red-shirt freshman – with one exception. The coaching staff was not able to bring in junior college talent that can make an immediate impact. The spin doctors out there will say it is because the freshman they evaluated were better. Granted, the new players appear to be more athletic and quicker than last year's line, but do they have the strength to man the line and create gaps for the linebackers to exploit?
The linebackers, the supposed strength of the defense, have questions as well. To be honest, they were not overly special last year. They made some plays during some games, but by and large were inconsistent. This year, they appear to have some play-makers, but those guys are either unproven and/or inconsistent. While unproven and inconsistent are not the same as untalented it is not that far away because neither group can be counted on.
And then we have the defensive backs. Talk about a group that cannot be counted on! This unit was the most maligned unit from 2005. They are definitely small and their speed is still in question, as is their ability to make plays on the ball.
Yes there was a change in scheme that reduced the numbers of safeties, but manning fewer positions may not have solved the problems of talent, speed, blitzing and cover skills.
Here, BYU is counting on young and/or unproven players. In fact, so in need of talent is this group, that some fans were banking on a cornerback who is a true freshman just barely off his mission to come in and be a big-time contributor. That player is now injured and one can almost hear the excuse: "But if Brandon Bradley hadn't gotten hurt…"
Fans that are looking for a dramatic turn around of BYU's defense are simply fooling themselves. The bottom line is that the Cougars have serious questions to answer on defense, and those trying to provide answers are largely young and lacking in Division I experience. It could get very ugly, very quickly for the fans when the Cougar defense takes the field.
The Schedule: Every game is winnable, but the early stretch might prove to be too much for this team to overcome. Three of the first five are on the road, and they are against, arguably, three of the best teams BYU will play. Tulsa, another of the early opponents, will play in Provo, but they won Conference USA during a "rebuilding" year. They return all kinds of talent and experience. A 1-4 start is not unreasonable. And that just might shatter the confidence of the defense's young talent.
Throw in BYU's yearly stumble against a lesser opponent (SDSU '05, UNLV '04, Wyoming '03, Nevada '02, etc.) and BYU could be looking at five losses in the blink of an eye. Oh, it should be pointed out that the most difficult games are also on the road. BYU travels to Fort Worth (TCU), Fort Collins (CSU) and Salt Lake (Utah). And speaking of the Utes, given their recent domination of the series – the last four and nine of the last 13 – can anyone hold much faith in the Cougars ability to defeat their rivals? Until BYU shows they can beat them, it is going to be difficult to pick them in this game too.
The Offense: Yes this group is led by some great seniors: John Beck, Curtis Brown, Jake Kuresa, Daniel Coats, Eddie Keele, and Jonny Harline. Yes, this group is going to move the ball on everyone. Yes, this group is going to score a lot of points. Yes, this group is good enough to win every game. But there are still questions here that the offense needs to answer.
Wide receiver is one position that is still in question. Can Michael Reed take the next step and take over one of the outside positions? He has the necessary tools – speed, hands, size – to stretch the field, but will he utilize them? Is McKay Jacobson the real deal? BYU is pinning their outside receiver hopes on a sophomore (Reed), a true freshman (Jacobson), a guy coming off an ACL injury (Matt Smith) and two players (Zac Collie and Matt Allen) that combined for 32 catches 430 yards and four touchdowns last year.
Some say that the sheer number of "quality" receivers show how deep the position is and that teams will not be able to focus on one guy, like they did last year with Todd Watkins. This way teams will have to worry about all of them. Until they show what they can do, however, and then produce consistently, teams will not have to worry about any of them.
Another great area of concern is depth. Injuries have already started to afflict the offense. Tom Sorensen was going to be the back-up center, until he blew out his knee in practice. The inside slot receiver features a true freshman (Mike Hague) and two guys who just got cleared to play by trainers.
There is talent behind Curtis Brown, but Ray Hudson and Fui Vakapuna would really have to step up if he went down. At quarterback, there should be grave concerns if Beck was injured. Jason Beck has been around for a few years, so he knows the system, but there is a serious drop-off from John. Jason has looked better than he ever has this fall camp, but he still throws too many bad passes. For most fans, their lasting image of Jason is him throwing three interceptions against Stanford in 2004 before being benched. If John Beck gets hurt… Well, there is reason to hope it does not come to that.
There are many reasons to believe that 2006 could be much worse than fans want to acknowledge. There are serious questions about the defensive line. There are a few reasons to doubt the play-making ability of the linebackers. There is no shortage of concern about the defensive backs talent. The offense is thin at several positions. The starting QB is irreplaceable and the wide outs have no proven go to guy.
The schedule is winnable, but it is also brutal. In just the first five games there are four quality opponents, three tough road games, two conference champions and just one Utah State. The Mountain West is also better than last year as several teams welcome better talent. BYU will have to bring their "A" game every week, because despite several down years, the Cougars are still a circle game on many schedules.
Can BYU make the plays necessary to turn things around? All I know is that it has been five seasons since they did.
Lest you accuse Scotten of losing his mind and turning Cougar-hater, check back tomorrow to read his Reasons for Optimism.
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