Seven Burning Questions

Brigham Young University's football program is entering its seventh year since legendary coach LaVell Edwards retired. Since his departure, the team has been through two coaches who have attempted to answer the questions that 257-win Edwards is no longer answering.

I see seven questions that need to be answered by current coach Bronco Mendenhall for this seventh season. Here are those seven questions, the answers have already been given or will be proffered, and a few predictions tossed in for good measure.

Question #1: Who will replace John Beck at quarterback? The answer has already been given: Max Hall. But the real question is how will Hall perform? The season, to a large extent, will go as well as Hall plays. If he comes close to replicating either of Beck's last two years, in which Beck averaged nearly 3,800 yards and 30 touchdowns, then BYU will be very successful. The formula is very simple: Max Hall + good QB play = good season for BYU.

Question #2: How does BYU fill the void left by all-time leading rusher Curtis Brown? It will be running back by committee to a degree this year in Provo. Returning power back Fui Vakapuna will share the brunt of the carries with redshirt freshman Harvey Unga, who was the most productive back in fall camp. Fullback Manase Tonga might be the best receiver out of the backfield. But there are questions surrounding these three. Is Fui finally fully healthy? Is Unga ready to carry the load? How much will the offense miss Tonga in the game against Arizona, which he has to miss due to suspension?

Question #3: With the team already thin at defensive tackle, can two newcomers take up the slack? This might be the greatest unanswered question. BYU will look to a true freshman, a converted offensive guard and a junior college defensive end to man the key defensive tackle position. If the combination of Eathyn Manunaleuna, Rick Wolfley and Mosese Foketi are able to occupy the center, and keep the guards off the middle linebackers, the defense could be as dominant as it was last year.

Question #4: Can BYU overcome the loss of two NFL-caliber tight ends? On paper this looks like a definite yes. Dennis Pitta seems to have already locked up the playmaker role vacated by Jonny Harline, and Vic So'oto could very well be the second coming of punishing blocker Dan Coats – but with much better hands. Andrew George is still lurking out there and chomping at the bit to show what he can do. Although none of them have extensive experience in the passing offense, all three might be more talented than the two they are replacing.

Question #5: BYU lost two safeties to injury in fall camp. Will that affect the depth too much? When Dustin Gabriel went down, the secondary took a hit. When his experienced backup, David Tafuna, was also lost for the year, BYU's secondary coach Jamie Hill was looking at an inexperience junior, Kellen Fowler, to become the backup at both safety positions. It looks like two freshmen, Jordan Pendleton and Steven Thomas, could be called into action should anything happen to Quinn Gooch or now-starter Corby Hodgkiss. The two starters should be okay, but things might look dicey if there are any more injuries.

Question #6: Does BYU have a consistent kicker on special teams? At the start of fall camp, it did not look like BYU did. By the end, it looked like BYU just might. Mitch Payne seemed to gain confidence with every practice and was reported to be knocking in field goals of 50-plus yards daily during the final week. C. J. Santiago would boom huge kicks or drop the ball inside the 20 with ease, but then he would shank one off the side of his foot. The shanks were much less frequent later in camp, however. Whether they show their early camp or late camp form when the kicks really count is yet to be determined.

Question #7: Will Offensive Coordinator fix his playcalling woes from past season openers? In two opening games under Robert Anae, BYU has 32 yards rushing on 40 carries. It seems that Anae has been overly conservative early in the season, and then finds his groove later in the year. When BYU rushes for 150 yards or more the last two years, they are 11-1. When they finish with fewer than 30 carries, they are 2-5. This formula seems straightforward as well: BYU + commitment to the running game = BYU victory.

Predictions:

- Hall will silence many critics in the opening game and even more by season's end. He will approach 3,500 yards passing on the season. He will not be asked to do too much early on the year. He will play well enough for BYU to beat Arizona in the opener.
- Unga will be more productive this year than Vakapuna, but the backfield will receive a real boost when Tonga rejoins them. They will not be as good as they were last year with Brown, but they will be better than many "experts" think. I foresee another 1,500-yard rushing season for the team.
- Defensive tackle play will be much better in the second half to the season. There could be a steep learning curve early in the year, given the difficult schedule (two Pac-10 teams, two road games, etc). When the newcomers get up to speed, they will do fine, but the will struggle early on. This position will be a strength next year due to the experience they will gain this year, coupled with the return of Russell Tialavea.
- By halftime of the Arizona game, fans in LaVell Edwards Stadium will be asking, "Jonny who?" Even though Harline is still open, this tight end group will be very good right from the start of the season.
- The safety position will be safe – as long as there are no more injuries. Yes, Pendleton and Thomas are talented, but they are not ready to be counted on full-time. This is a cross-your-fingers position. I think BYU can get through the year, and like defensive tackle, the experience the safeties get this year will pay nice dividends down the road.
- The kicking game will be just like it was in spring ball and fall camp: inconsistent. The punt and kickoff coverages will be solid, but place kicking and punting will literally be a hit-or-miss proposition. I do not think a missed field goal will be the difference in the Arizona game, but it will at some point in the season.
- Coach Anae will not take a game or two (or three) to find his playcalling groove. With an inexperienced quarterback, he will almost be forced to remain committed to the run – which will be a very good thing for the BYU offense. I think the offense will be much better much earlier than many think.

In short, there are several burning questions surrounding the season opener and the whole season in general. Whether answers have already been found or if there is more searching to do will be rectified in short order. The season opener is practically upon us and the answers are just waiting to be discovered. Come 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, will the Cougars roar or meow?


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