Entering the 2008 season, the expectations for BYU are as high as they've been for a long, long time. Indeed, the nation has taken notice, as is evidenced by the Cougars being ranked #17 in the preseason coaches' poll.
The team looks to be strong at just about every position. Therefore, those positions which present the greatest potential weakness due to a dearth of either talent or depth take the forefront during the fall practice session. In this reporter's mind, no position has more potential weaknesses than the inside linebacker position.
The good news is that the position isn't necessarily weak, just relatively and potentially weak when compared with the other positions on the team. The Cougars return two proven contributors in Shawn Doman and Matt Bauman, both of whom will likely start and subsequently see the majority of the reps during the season.
The concerns surround the depth behind Doman and Bauman. Inside linebacker coach Paul Tidwell stated in the spring that they've learned over the past two years of the importance of having four good able bodies to rotate at middle linebacker. Therefore, finding two adequate rotating linebackers becomes the lead story entering fall practices.
The need for adequate backup becomes even more intensified when considering Doman's history with back problems, which hasn't allowed him to play a full year with a full set of reps. Should Doman prove to be over his chronic back problems and sees 30+ reps throughout the season, it will go a long way in alleviating whatever concerns there are at the inside linebacker position.
Matt Ah You and Dan Van Sweden will likely man the two backup spots at the start of fall, with incoming players such as Spencer Hadley, Iona Pritchard and perhaps Jerry Bruner trying to make an impact sooner rather than later.
Prediction: Matt Ah You will emerge as the primary backup and finish the season seeing starter-type reps. I believe in player buzz, and there is a player buzz about Matt Ah You. Although his spring practice session was cut short, there remains a buzz from his teammates that he can get it done and thrive as an inside linebacker.
2. Fui Vakapuna
Harvey Unga is the team's primary running back. After coming off of record-setting numbers for a freshman, Unga will hopefully only improve upon those numbers. Who backs up Unga and plays alongside him at fullback in Manase Tonga's absence is the most important issue to be sorted out on offense.
The good news is that Fui Vakapuna looked more like his sophomore self than junior self this past spring. Fans know that a healthy and aggressive Vakapuna can wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Unga had to shoulder too much of the load a season ago and wore down toward the end of the year. Should Vakapuna be able to shoulder an ample load of the running responsibilities, it will go a long way in aiding the Cougar running game as a whole.
Prediction: Vakapuna will get 8-10 carries per game and rush for over 500 yards on the year. He is motivated and looking to finish up strong. His team needs him, and after a productive spring and offseason, Vakapuna should be returning to form.
3. Vic So'oto
Congruent with the concerns at inside linebacker is the concern of how effectively Bryan Kehl will be replaced at outside linebacker. Vic So'oto has taken upon himself that mantle and has consistently wowed observers throughout the spring and offseason.
So'oto is one of the best pure athletes on the team, and his upside has always been tremendous. After having trouble finding his mark in Anae's offense, So'oto switched to outside linebacker. This spring he showed to be a real pass rushing threat on the outside, and showed a great ability to cover tight ends and running backs.
Should So'oto prove able and consistent in gap assignments against the run, he'll be getting just about every rep at the outside linebacker position opposite of David Nixon. Should he enter the season lacking in this area, he'll split a lot of time with Coleby Clawson.
Prediction: So'oto will lead the team in sacks. I love Jan Jorgensen, but his success will make teams have to account for him better on passing downs, leading to likely double teams. With So'oto coming on strong behind him, the converted tight end will likely rack up a lot of sacks by the end of the year.
4. Kicking Game
The most exciting kicking prospect BYU will likely ever sign will be practicing with the team for the first time Saturday. Indeed, few kickers join a team with more hype than Justin Sorensen from Bingham High School.
Sorensen's credentials are tremendous and he'll battle immediately with Mitch Payne, who has worked his way through some tough groin injuries that have affected him since returning from his mission. A healthy Payne should lead to some great competition this fall for the primary kicking duties.
Sorensen's advantage here is that kicker is certainly a position where a true freshman can come in and start right away. There are precious few things a kicker has to learn with a new team other than to merely kick the ball, which Sorensen does extremely well.
Prediction: Payne will hold on to the primary kicking duties. Payne had a very good spring which saw him be more consistent than he was a year ago, which should lead to him hanging onto the primary kicking duties. Meanwhile, Sorensen will emerge to handle the kickoff responsibilities.
5. Backup wide receivers
Austin Collie and Michael Reed will obviously see the majority of reps at both wide receiver spots, but who will back them up and join the two-deep roster remains in question. There are many options here, and coaches will be looking to see which option will be the first receiver off the bench behind Collie and Reed.
The candidates include Tyler Kozlowski, Reed White, Luke Ashworth, Spencer Hafoka, Landon Jaussi, Matt Marshall, Bryce Mahuika and freshman O'Neill Chambers among others. Which of these players will rise up and become the first receiver off the bench remains to be sorted out this August.
Prediction: By a nose, Luke Ashworth will emerge as the first wide receiver off the bench behind Collie and Reed. Ashworth is a great athlete who came off his mission in prime shape, leading to a very good spring practice session. There are a lot of exciting options along with Ashworth, which should make this story one of the more intriguing ones during the fall.
6. Battle at Boundary
As I stated earlier, I believe in player buzz. Perhaps no player on the team has as much buzz around him as Brandon Bradley. Teammates have been raving about his superior physical makeup since he arrived at BYU after his mission. A string of injuries has limited Bradley, but a fully healthy Bradley should make a strong run to unseat Scott Johnson at boundary CB.
This battle truly could be summed up as a classic tortoise vs. the hare-type of competition. Bradley is bigger, faster, quicker, jumps higher and overall dominates Johnson in raw athleticism. Johnson knows how to run the race better at this juncture, however; he proved to be in the right spot at the right time throughout spring practices, which kept him ahead of Bradley.
Prediction: Bradley will start getting reps with the 1s entering the third week of practices. Bradley has to beat out Johnson, who provides defensive coordinator Jaime Hill with the most important attribute: consistency. Once Bradley becomes consistent in his own rite, his athleticism will push him over the edge, leading to a starting slot this coming season.
7. Backup Quarterback
The job was assumed to be Brenden Gaskins' before spring started, but a strong run by Kurt McEuen led quarterback coach Brandon Doman to declare the backup position to be wide open. Spring saw no resolution of the backup battle, so Gaskins and McEuen are set to battle again during fall practices.
McEuen caught Gaskins by surprise during the first two weeks of spring, clearly outperforming the then-assumed backup, but Gaskins got going during the finishing weeks to end the session in a virtual tie for Max Hall's backup spot.
Prediction: McEuen will emerge as Hall's backup. I like both players, but McEuen is coming on strong and sees an opening that he created and will now take advantage of. McEuen will be Hall's backup as the season begins, but it won't be resolved until the final week of preseason practices.
Who will back up David Tafuna when the season kicks off at strong safety? That spot needs to be taken by Jordan Pendleton, who has yet to complete a full offseason practice session due to injury. Pendleton is a special athlete who many believe is a once-in-every-10-years type of safety thanks to his superior size and athleticism.
The backup slot behind Tafuna isn't set, but should be Pendleton's to lose. Considering all the athletic assets he possesses, we're anxious and very interested to see what Pendleton can do with a full practice session, as well as what he can do during the season.
Prediction: Pendleton will prove to be the intimidating force fans are anticipating during practices, but won't likely see significant playing time on the field unless there is some sort of an injury to Tafuna. Coach Hill is not one to sub guys in and out much in the secondary, and this most will not likely change this year.
9. Filling in for Grant Nelson
Much like it is with the inside linebackers, coaches feel it necessary to have a solid and deep two-deep at outside linebacker. Grant Nelson was likely to fill out the two-deep along with Nixon, So'oto and Clawson, but with his season-ending ailment, that position remains wide open.
Prediction: Masi Tuitama will break the two-deep roster and see some good playing time during the coming year. Tuitama is a player who came on very strong toward the end of spring practice, and we look for that to continue during fall practices and the season.
10. Bright and the Backups
How Travis Bright is recovering and how soon he'll be able to assume his role as starting right guard is certainly one of the bigger stories of fall practice. We look forward to seeing Bright take the field again, as he's essential to the overall success of the Cougar offensive front.
Look for Matt Reynolds to fill in for Bright until he's able to fully recover from his leg injury. Who will back up each offensive line position remains in question, and the two-deep along the offensive front is certainly something we'll be monitoring throughout preseason practices.
Prediction: Bright will play, but not right away. Don't expect Bright to practice much at all during the first two weeks, as he'll be able to return in time for conference play. Recovery is a tricky thing to predict, and hopefully I'm wrong in this prediction and we see a fully healthy Bright take the field during the first game of the season.