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Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring Mid-Terms

To read more writings by The Editor, you can visit: collegefootballhaven12.blogspot.com

BYU is half way through spring practices. Time for a mid-term progress report.

1. Quiet on the defensive front. The defensive side of the ball is not generating much noise. The one exception is Kyle Van Noy. He has turned heads at outside linebacker. It sounds like he might start opposite Jordan Pendleton. If so, let's hope Van Noy is the real deal. Opposing offenses will test him.

2. Harvey Unga is losing playing time? Newcomer Joshua Quezada is running his way up the depth chart. If he continues to progress, he could see significant playing time this year. A duel threat backfield with Unga and Quezada could rival the Jamal Willis-Kalin Hall or Brian McKenzie and Ronny Jenkins one-two punches that we had in the nineties.

3. Down for the count. The offensive line has gotten thinner. Famika Anae tore his ACL and will be out for the year. The o-line was already thin, and this injury makes a spring game more unlikely. This leads me to the question, why does BYU have so few offensive linemen? They might not get much attention in the press, but, I thought that coaches tried to go at least three deep because the line is so crucial. I remember on my high school team, pretty much any lineman trying out would make the team if he could stick it out. You can't ever have too many linemen.

4. The Quarterbacks. Last, but not least, is the quarterback battle. Anyone staying current on spring practice can tell you that Jake Heaps is making a strong case for the starting quarterback position. His stats are far and away better than Riley Nelson and James Lark. The coaching staff speaks very positively about him.

While this is all fine and dandy, before we all anoint Heaps as the second coming of Ty Detmer, we don't have all the facts. We don't know how much Heaps is playing against the first or second defensive unit. We don't know how complicated the defensive schemes have been. We don't know how much of the playbook Heaps knows. We don't know what the coaches are doing. I have been reading former BYU tight end Chad Lewis' new autobiography "Surround Yourself with Greatness," and when he described spring practice I got the impression that the coaches almost scripted practice to put specific players in specific situations to see what will happen. It is possible that the coaches are putting Heaps in a better situation to succeed as a passer, while Nelson and Lark are being put in situations that are scripted runs or less glamorous passing needs.

As for Nelson, let's not write him off yet. He might have earned the label "running quarterback" last year by scrambling on several designed pass plays, but "running quarterbacks" have been successful in BYU's offense. That includes the current quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. Doman was third string in 2000 when injuries to Brett Engemann and Charlie Peterson forced the coaches to start Doman for the last two games. Doman won both games to pull BYU to a 6-6 finish. The next year Doman started the season 12-0. Although Doman did not fit the "BYU mold" he was a winner, and that proved to be more important. I wonder how much Doman's experience is weighing on him as he evaluates the quarterbacks.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What to do with Heaps

To read more writings by The Editor, you can visit: collegefootballhaven12.blogspot.com

In adherence with standard protocol when the incumbent quarterback graduates, much of the attention in the BYU football world this offseason has focused on the battle for the starting quarterback. This year, however, the presence of Jake Heaps makes this battle much more intriguing. The Ben Olson episode adds a wrinkle as well. Of course, everyone seems to have an opinion on what will happen or what should happen.

THE POSSIBILITIES
1. Start Immediately. Matt Barkley did it last year for USC. Jimmy Clausen did it three years ago at Notre Dame. Ben Olson did not do it. He left on a mission, transferred, and BYU had three consecutive losing seasons.

If Heaps is going to start immediately it needs to be for one reason, and one reason only: he is better than Riley Nelson, James Lark, and Jason Munns and gives BYU the best chance to win now.

We have no guarantees that BYU would have been better if Olson started from 2002-2004. Yes, he had a lot of potential and promise, but we have to look at both sides of the story. He was also injury prone and a disappointment at UCLA. I don't know all the dynamics behind Olson's decision to transfer after his mission. I heard that he didn't like Crowton, but Crowton resigned at the same time Olson finished his mission. Although I hate to make judgments on people's character from afar, Olson's decision to transfer makes me wonder if he was the type of player that fits Bronco's system--one that works hard and is humble--or if he was just a spoiled rich kid. Neither Bronco, nor any BYU coach should let the fear of losing Heaps influence the outcome of the quarterback battle. If his pride is bruised that much because he doesn't get to start as a true freshman, then I seriously wonder if he has what it takes to be a great BYU quarterback.

Jimmy Clausen may be the first quarterback drafted in next month's NFL draft. That would be great for him, but that should have no influence over who starts at BYU next year. Look at the results of Clausen's career. Notre Dame went from a BCS bowl the year before to 3 wins in Clausen's freshman season. The next two years weren't much better (7-6, and 6-6 without a bowl game). Now he is gone, leaving a year of eligibility on the table. Notre Dame invested in its top quarterback recruit and got nothing in return. Is that what BYU and its fans want? Of course, Heaps is not destined to follow in Clausen's path. My point is that using Clausen to argure for Heaps to start as a true freshman is an empty argument.

The jury is still out on Matt Barkley. However, we do have one year to look at. USC's string of seven consecutive Pac-10 championships was snapped.

Let me say it again, the only reason Jake Heaps should start next year is if he gives BYU the best chance to win because he is better than the other three competitiors.

2. Redshirt and go in a mission. This would put him back on campus for 2013. At that point, Nelson and Lark will be gone, and Munns will have one year of eligibilty left. Not much different than the situation today. Presumably, though, he won't have two other hot prospects to compete with three years from now. If he finds himself deep on the depth chart, or if Ross Apo, Zac Stout, and some of the other players in his recruiting class all decide to go on a mission as well, he might see a mission as the best option for his life and his playing career.

Return missionaries did not have much success in the 1980s and 90s, but John Beck and Max Hall have shown that RMs can be successful quarterbacks.

3. Redshirt and have three years of eligibility after Riley Nelson graduates. If Heaps does not start, redshirting is in his best interest, barring a season ending injury at some point to Nelson. I would want to play as much as possible in my career, so if I can lose one year of eligibility as a back up and start three, that option would be a no brainer for me.

The injury scenario is interesting. Let's stick with the hypothetical of Nelson as number 1, but Heaps ends the competition number two. Subsequently, the redshirt is put on Heaps. Nelson plays well, but not outstanding, for 4 games when he suffers a season ending injury. Does Heaps give up the redshirt to start the rest of the season, or let the number three play? Suppose that number three shines and takes the starting job from Nelson for 2011, and for the rest of his years of eligibility. Well, Heaps could still go on a mission. If his mind is made up that he won't go on a mission, then I say he takes the redshirt off. Either he will shine and win the starting job himself, or Nelson will resume that spot for his senior year and Heaps can use his redshirt the next year. (Kind of like 1978 when Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon split time, but in 1979 McMahon redshirted while Wilson played his final year.)

In reality, until the season kicks off September 5, and a depth chart is established, all of this speculation is meaningless. However, for what it's worth, my opinion is that the best case scenario for Heaps would be to redshirt this year, regardless if a mission is in the future or not, and be content to be the back up for one additional year. He shoult still work his guts out and study till his head hurts for these two years. History shows that quarterbacks who wait two years after high school before they start are very successful. LaVell Edwards did not have to sacrifice Steve Young's career so that Robbie Bosco could win a national championship as a junior. Ty Detmer beat out Sean Covey only after a redshirt year and a year as a back up. That didn't stop him from winning the Heisman Trophy. Yes, John Beck survivied the rigors of playing early, but Matt Berry did not.

BYU Spring Practice: Burning Questions

BYU opened its spring football practices Monday. Here are my burning questions for coaches and players to answer between now and April 10.

1. Who will be the starting quarterback?
“Certainly the most careful planning and thinking and praying and fasting should be done to be sure that of all decisions, this one is not wrong” (President Spencer W. Kimball). While President Kimball was speaking about celestial marriage and not about choosing the next BYU quarterback, his counsel still applies. Going back to 1974, there is a direct correlation between the team success and quarterback play. Here are a few examples:
  • 1975—BYU starts 0-3 before Gifford Nielsen takes over in the fourth game to lead a fourth quarter come from behind win.
  • 1986-1988—The quarterback factory shut down. After 10 consecutive conference championships BYU goes 0 for 3 and wins less than 10 games each year, and the quarterback who started the season is not the quarterback who ends the season.
  • 1997-1999—Paul Shoemaker was benched for Kevin Feterik and BYU is 4-4 in conference and 6-5 overall in 1997. The rest of the Feterik days are not bad, but not great either.
  • 2002-2005—Bret Engemann was benched for freshman Matt Berry, who was subsequently benched for freshman John Beck the next year. While Beck grew and matured we all suffered.
Publicly, Coach Mendenhall has said repeatedly that the quarterback race is wide open. Riley Nelson, James Lark, and Jake Heaps will all compete in spring practice. I believe it is Nelson’s job to lose. He has the experience edge and in limited action last year he showed that he has the ability to run the BYU offense. Mendenhall is not saying as much publicly for several reasons. One, there is no compelling reason to name a starter now. Two, a competition will make Nelson better. He will be more focused and be more intense in practice, in the weight room, in the film room, and in his free time. Three, with Lark fresh off a mission and Heaps new to the program, there is no way to tell who is the best and it would be foolish to not evaluate all your options before making a choice. Four, Bronco needs to keep Heaps happy. Heaps is a high profile recruit, and he needs to feel that he was given a fair shake; otherwise, he could go the path of Ben Olson.

On the other hand, this decision should not be unduly delayed. As I pointed out, history shows that the quarterback makes or breaks the season. Washington is first on the schedule. It would be wise to let the new starter get as many reps as possible come fall. I think Bronco needs a compelling reason to not start Nelson. I am aware of the groundswell of support for Heaps to start immediately, and I have no personal ties to Nelson or the Cache Valley community. My support for Nelson is that it is just the best route to follow, in my judgment. Click here for a full explanation why.

2. Will spring be effective for the offensive line?
The last reports I read had the count at eight—eight healthy lineman. Whatever the coaches did last year worked. If you didn’t know it, you would have never guessed that BYU had replaced four starters on the offensive line. It might be just as critical for the offensive line to step up this year as it was last year. A new quarterback’s best friend is a good offensive line. Stellar play by the line could add two wins to our win total and could make this team the Mountain West Conference champions. While the injured linemen can still participate in many ways, nothing is as effective as strapping it up and running plays.

3. Can the wide receivers take the next step?
The more and more I reflect on last year, the more I am convinced we needed Austin Collie. I am confident that BYU would have beat TCU and probably played in a BCS game if Collie had stayed for his senior year. (Just let me interject that I have no hard feelings about the decision he made, and his play with the Colts proved he was not jumping to the NFL prematurely.) Max Hall needed a receiver who could get open downfield against any defense. That is the kind of receiver Collie was. If BYU is going to get past TCU this year Mckay Jacobsen, O’Neill Chambers, and Luke Ashworth need to elevate their ability to shake off defenders—even faster and more athletic ones—through effectively run routes. Running backs and tight ends cannot account for over 50% of the pass receptions.

4. Will the defensive front seven be filled?
With three-fourths of the secondary back, the attention on defense will be the front seven. Only Jordan Pendleton returns up front. Call me crazy, but I am guardedly optimistic that the guys set to step in will be at least as good as those who left. That optimism comes from knowing that the coaches are able to coach up the players we have, and from hoping they have not forgotten 2008. BYU can regularly be a good defensive team, but it regularly requires added attention. I am hoping that these new guys are hungry to show the world what they got, and that they will catch a lot of teams by surprise. That being said, filling the front seven should emphasize pass rushing; we need more sacks.

That’s it, but before I go, I am sure many of you are wondering, “What about tight end?” The tight end position is not burning a hole in my pants because no position has been more consistent for BYU over the last 30 years than tight end. I am not going to lose any sleep over the departure of Dennis Pitta and Andrew George. I have no reason to doubt that whoever gets plugged in there will adequately fill that void.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Poll Results: Who is the best BYU tight end of all-time?

Itula Mili was voted the top BYU tight-end of all-time with 40% of the vote. Chad Lewis, Doug Jolley, and Dennis Pitta were the other vote getters.

To quickly respond to inquiry regarding the absense of Jonny Harline from the list, I did some further research and admit that I should have replaced Jolley with Harline. I don't think that would have changed the outcome.

Take a minute to vote in the new poll. Will Bronco name a starting quarterback by the end of spring practice?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

BYU Pro Day

To read more writings by The Editor, you can visit: collegefootballhaven12.blogspot.com

In case you didn't hear, BYU had its pro day yesterday, March 10. Jan Jorgensen, Max Hall, Dennis Pitta, Andrew George, Manase Tonga, Shawn Doman, and Tevita Hola participated. Curtis Brown and Jonny Harline also ran tests for the scouts on hand.

The most newsworthy thing that happened was Max Hall improving his 40 time by one tenth of a second to 4.7. As expected, Pitta attracted the most attention. He was his usual self and caught everything thrown to him. With the big spotlight on Pitta, it was impossible for light not to shine on George as well.

For me, however, the biggest story to me was that Coleby Clawson was not present. He might not be as great as Rob Morris and Bryan Kehl were (both former Cougars were present yesterday), but I thought he was good enough to get the attention of some pro teams.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

DENNIS PITTA: THE TIM TEBOW OF TIGHT ENDS

To read more writings by The Editor, you can visit: collegefootballhaven12.blogspot.com

We all know the legend of Tim Tebow. He has been one of the most celebrated and decorated quarterbacks in the history of college football. He was a great winner and leader. We also know that he is not expected to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. Several quarterbacks who have been less celebrated, who are less decorated, who won a lot less, and who have less leadership abilities are projected to be drafted before Tebow. The knock on Tebow is that his style of play does not fit the style of play in the NFL.

Tebow is not alone. Dennis Pitta concluded his career at BYU as arguably the best tight end in BYU history, and that says a lot. Here is a snapshot of Pitta’s resume:

* 2009 consensus All-American tight end;
* NCAA Record for career receiving yards by a tight end (2,901);
* 2009 Mackey Award Finalist;
* School record for career receptions (221);
* 48 games played;
* 43 consecutive games with a reception (45 if you only count games where he played);
* 3 seasons of over 800 yards receiving;
* 1 season of over 1,000 yards receiving;
* 7 games with 100 yards receiving or more;
* 1 game with over 200 yards receiving.

This list is more impressive when you take into account that for the last three years, Pitta has shared the tight end duties with Andrew George (70 receptions, 827 yards, 11 touchdowns).

Those who have watched Pitta play have seen him make difficult grabs look routine. It was not uncommon to see him go up for a ball, get hit by one or more defenders on his way down, and still hang on to the ball. He gets himself into position to catch any pass in his vicinity. Many of his receptions converted third downs into first downs.

At the NFL draft combine last week in Indianapolis, Pitta ranked first among all tight ends in the 3-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle, and second in bench press reps. He 40 time wasn’t shabby either, 4.63. Yet, Pitta is ranked as the seventh best tight end in the draft. None of the mock drafts that I saw before the combine had Pitta going in the first three rounds. He has just moved up to the third round, 84th pick (fourth tight end), in Peter Schrager’s Mock Draft 3.0 (foxsports.com).

Blocking is holding Pitta back. NFL tight ends are expected to be great blockers, as well as pass catchers. BYU tight ends always have to fight the stigma that they aren’t good blockers. Just like lining up in the shot gun and not having a proper release is hurting Tim Tebow, the style of play for tight ends at BYU is hurting Pitta’s draft stock.

I think the third round is a steal for Pitta who may end up being the next Tony Gonzalez.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Explaining the Fall of BYU Football in the 2000s

Let me make this disclaimer right off the top. The ideas I put forth in this column are more like hypotheses that deserve a more critical analysis, as opposed to conclusions that have gone through the experimental process. This started as a recruiting column, but the more I thought about it, the more it evolved. I am putting it forward to generate debate to involve as many people as possible to share what they know or think to help us all come to a better understanding about what might have caused those dark days that are mercifully behind us.

I had always assigned the blame for the three consecutive losing seasons (2002-04) on Gary Crowton. Recently, though, I have identified four other aspects of BYU football that makes me seriously question whether Crowton was completely culpable for the BYU football demise during his tenure. Let’s take a look at all five of these.

1. Gary Crowton
He took over as head coach in 2001 when the legendary LaVell Edwards retired after a 6-6 season in 2000. Crowton won his first 12 games with an exciting offense that produced the 2001 Doak Walker Award winner. He followed his first year with the aforementioned losing seasons. They were the first losing seasons since 1973. The offense was never as potent as 2001. Quarterbacks were rapidly falling by the wayside. Crowton lost the confidence of his players. The team became divided. Scandals involving players increasingly made headlines. Crowton announced his resignation following the 2004 season.

Bronco Mendenhall was named the successor coach. He revitalized the program by returning to a bowl game in his first season and won the Mountain West Conference championship his second season en route to a national ranking. To make matters worse, most of the players Mendenhall used were recruited by Crowton. Mendenhall also openly embraced the honor code and moral standards of BYU, while Crowton was depicted as trying to work around them.

2. Non-LDS athletes
Amidst Crowton’s failures, his recruitment of players who were not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was scrutinized as honor code violations were being reported at an alarming rate. Two talented running backs, Marcus Wahlen and Ray Braithwaite, had their promising careers at BYU cut short, and we all remember the gang rape incident of a Provo teen. These incidents are inexcusable, but they were not without precedent. With the national championship in 1984 and Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy in 1990, BYU started attracting high quality non-LDS athletes years before Crowton arrived. If we are going to be completely objective in our analysis, we have to remember that Ronney Jenkins had two honor code infractions in his two year playing career (1996, 1998), and Reno “Junior” Mahe, who is LDS, also had honor code issues following the 1998 season.

The BYU recruiting classes of the 1990s were impressive and probably the best ever for BYU. A lot of that had to do with the recruiting of non-LDS players. The results on the field were not as impressive: only two 10-win seasons from 1991-2000. I have long had the opinion that I would rather have less talented LDS kids who would work hard and be disciplined than very talented non-LDS kids who coasted on that talent for success. To me, the success of the 80s was the product of well executed play by down-to-earth kids who knew they had to work hard for success. That identity began to fade in the 90s, long before Crowton arrived.

With all that being said, I think that the recent success under Bronco Mendenhall can be largely attributed to getting back to the basics of hard work, discipline, and accepting that LDS players would be the program’s staple recruit and the high moral standards would not be sugar coated to attract the talented non-LDS recruits. The underlying question is, was a coaching change absolutely necessary to get back to these basics, or could Crowton have corrected the program himself?

3. Ricks College
Over the years, Ricks College was good to BYU. Talents like Jason Buck, Ben Cahoon, Matt Johnson, and Stan and John Raas came to Provo via Rexburg. As a junior college sponsored by the Church, the Ricks football program was almost like a minor league developmental team for BYU. Players who were late bloomers or who were too under the radar in high school had an opportunity to develop and shine, while BYU had the inside track to sign these players. In June 2000, Church leadership announced that Ricks College would convert from a Junior College to a four year institution. Subsequently, the football program was discontinued following the 2001 season.

While Ricks College has not fed the BYU program since 2001, I am having trouble finding evidence to support a claim that the discontinuance of football in Rexburg hurt football in Provo from 2002-04. Any player on Ricks’ roster in 2001 would have had two years of eligibility left. They would have come to BYU and completed their eligibility by 2004 at the latest. One such player was John Denney. He came to BYU after his freshman year at Ricks in 2000. He redshirted 2001, and was a significant contributor on defense from 2002 to 2004, exactly the years in question. He has been in the NFL ever since.

Does anyone have additional information to support or refute that losing Ricks College is not a valid reason BYU football suffered from 2002 to 2004?

4. Lost grip on the best kept secret in college football: Polynesians
For years, BYU thrived off of annually harvesting a healthy crop of Polynesian players. In the glory days, BYU seemed to have exclusive access to the best Polynesian players in Hawaii, Figi, Samoa, and Tonga, just to name a few locations. Somewhere along the line the rest of college football caught on and BYU lost its exclusive access to these players. A very informative article acknowledging this much is on Scout.com. Even though this article was written back in 2003 and it gives the impression that BYU was King of the Polynesian recruiting hill again, there are signs that this was and is not true. Look at the following list of Polynesian players who did not play at BYU:

Haloti Ngata, Oregon, 2003-2005: Was a consensus All-American in 2005, left early for the NFL draft, was a first round draft choice, having a successful career with the Baltimore Ravens.
Fili Moala, USC, 2004-2008: Honorable mention All-Pac 10, second round NFL draft pick.
Stanley Havili, USC, 2007-Present: Started for the Trojans as a freshman, honorable mention All-Pac 10 as a freshman, considered the best fullback in the country.
Manti Te’o, Notre Dame, 2009-Present: Started 9 of 12 games as a true freshman, and was a freshman All-American.
Kona Schwenke, Notre Dame: Committed to BYU, then took a trip to Notre Dame less than a week before signing day and signed with the Irish.

Haloti Ngata is the only one on my list that could have had a real impact on the team during the losing years. As I said, all of my reasons are still hypotheses, so if you know of others from that time period, please share. My guess is that where there is one, there are many. I also think that if Ngata was an isolated incident at that time, this list would not be as long. While the other players on the list are still playing or played during the Mendenhall era, it is hard to look at their impressive accomplishments and believe that they would not have had a positive impact on BYU football. It is also hard to believe that during Crowton’s years BYU was still benefiting from Polynesian players they same way it was in the 80s and 90s.

5. Bret Engemann was a bust
This is, perhaps, the second simplest explanation (blaming Crowton being the first). In the last 25 years, quarterback play has been the greatest indicator of success. When Robbie Bosco left in 1985, BYU was riding a string of 10 consecutive conference championships. For the first time since the quarterback factory began, BYU did not find a successful heir in 1986. This led to sub-par seasons for three years (1986-1988) until Ty Detmer took over full-time in 1989. Following Detmer, the quarterback play was spotty for the rest of the decade, and, with the exception of 1994 and 1996, BYU had what could be considered mediocre seasons. Nevertheless, in those years in the 80s and 90s BYU did not sink as low as it did from 2002 to 2004.

Engemann had his first chance in 2000. He was 2-3 as a starter before injuries ended his season. His second chance came in 2002, and halfway through the year he had lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Matt Berry. The plan was for Engemann to start 2002 and 2003, and Berry or John Beck would have been ready to take over in 2004. Engemann’s poor play disrupted the development of Berry and Beck; it created lack of continuity at the game’s most important position.

Most of the last two paragraphs are facts that cannot be argued. The second concludes with some light analysis on the consequences of Engemann’s play, which I completely agree with. Why do I feel so uncomfortable about stopping there? Looking back at the 2002 season, BYU started 2-0 and then lost two close games on the road. In next game against Utah State, Engemann led the largest comeback win in BYU football history. He lost the starting job after playing ineffectively in a 52-9 loss to Air Force. At 3-3 the coaching staff gave up on Brett. It should also be pointed out that since Engemann was less mobile than Brandon Doman, Coach Crowton started using the Wildcat with Lance Pendleton. In the first two losses, Pendleton played a lot, which was not the case in the three wins.

I am, by no means, a Bret Engemann apologist. At the time, I was excited to see Matt Berry get a chance to play. Engemann must be held accountable for the way he played. However, in retrospect, the best thing after all might have been to stay loyal to Engemann, and that would include abandoning the Wildcat. Although he was not playing well, he was still a better option than Berry, Pendleton, or Todd Mortensen. Had he started the rest of the year, his development would have continued, and maybe instead of losing the last two games (20-16 to New Mexico, and 13-6 to Utah) to finish 5-7, we would have finished 6-6 or 7-5. Engemann’s development would have continued in the off season and there is a good chance he would have done better than 4-8 in 2003.

All that takes me back to the coaching. I can’t say that Crowton handled the situation well. As one who has played quarterback, I can attest that a quarterback needs to feel his coach has confidence in him. Crowton clearly did not have confidence in Engemann. A 3-3 record is not desirable, but it is not the end of the world either. Engemann had shown flashes of competency, and with 11 career starts the chances for success with Brett were surely higher than with a redshirt freshman. Crowton appears to have been so afraid to lose one game that he did not keep the big picture in mind.

Now it is your chance to help finish what I have begun. Please share what you remember and any “insider” knowledge you might have to help validate or repudiate what I have said.

The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at bluecougarfootball@gmail.com