BYU finished 2010 on a roll. BYU ended the year 5-1, and it took a rash of fluke plays for the Cougars to lose that one game to nationally ranked Utah. As the off season started, BYU had a massive amount of momentum and an overload of optimism.
Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall wasted no time reorganizing his coaching staff. First, he solidified the moves that he made during the 2010 season when he released defensive coordinator Jaime Hill after game five. Mendenhall remains the defensive coordinator, and Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga were permanently promoted to be the secondary and outside linebackers coaches, respectively.
Second, Mendenhall replaced Robert Anae at offensive coordinator with quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. Lance Reynolds moved from running backs coach to tight ends coach to fill the other void left by Anae. Joe DuPaix from Navy came in to coach the running backs, and Canadian Football League legend Ben Cahoon replaced Patrick Higgins, who left for Purdue, as the wide receivers coach. The reaction to the coaching changes has been overwhelmingly positive both inside and outside the program. The honeymoon, however, is about to end.
On July 1, 2011, it became official: BYU was a college football independent. Speaking of honeymoons, the independence honeymoon has been awesome. The early first-year dividends of the eight-year television agreement with ESPN are exceeding all expectations. BYU will play 10 games on ESPN with the Oregon State game still up in the air. Regardless of what happens on the field, the 2011 season undeniably has a spot reserved in history.
Speaking of what happens on the field, BYU returns several starters. BYU reports 19 starters returning, while other outlets say just 15. The discrepancy comes from all the injuries that BYU suffered on defense a year ago, so depending on how “starter” is defined somewhere between 15 and 19 starters are returning. Either way, the amount of experience coming back is leaps and bounds higher than in 2010.
This experience is a huge positive. Perhaps the best part of it is that BYU does not return too much experience to satiate the critical hunger factor. Most of the experienced players who return haven’t tasted the classic BYU success, at least not in roles as major contributors. Therefore, they stay hungry to be part of a legacy season that will be remembered for decades to come. There is no scientific measurements indicating the perfect blend of experience and hunger, but this 2011 BYU squad has to be pretty close.
Depth is another positive of the 2011 team. Years of hard work in recruiting are finally bearing fruits. While it is still just 11 guys who can be on the field at any one time, the competition in practice pushes the starters to be better, and BYU is now in a better position to “not skip a beat” if a player goes down with injury or has any eligibility issues.
As with any new season, questions abound and intriguing storylines worthy of attention will be answered or unfold as the season progresses. Here are just a few:
- Will the momentum continue? The early schedule presents challenges with two road games where passion for football is unmatched. A quick 2-0 start will do wonders for BYU’s credibility, the decision to go independent, and the team’s drive to work for a special season.
- How will the BYU secondary perform? Three out of four starters are gone from 2010. The replacements have potential, but how long will it take to realize that potential?
- How will the coaching changes impact this season? Will the change up help bring out the best in the players, or will BYU struggle as the coaches work to intimately know what their players’ strengths and weaknesses are?
- What will be the impact of Brandon Doman as offensive coordinator? He has made it clear that he will tweak the offense. That shouldn’t cause too many problems, but you never know. He will also have to adjust to making all play calls. Will he fall on his face or fly sky high?
- How good will Jake Heaps be? A year of experience is priceless for a quarterback’s confidence. He has all the tools and is surrounded by weapons. This year could be a classic.
- Will playing on ESPN virtually every week change people’s perception of BYU? There is no more excuse for anyone to be ignorant about BYU. If BYU challenges for a top 10 or top 15 ranking, will the easy access to BYU games get poll voters watching actual BYU football games and forming fair opinions about the Cougars?
- How valuable will the two USC transfers be? Hebron Fangupo and Uona Kaveinga will both be on the field a lot. How much will their addition help take BYU football to the next level, particularly as a fierce, ferocious, and feared defense?
- Who will be this year’s surprise new players? Ross Apo seems to have a good chance, but so do a lot of other players. Uona Kaveinga and Daniel Sorensen are two others. Drew Phillips is a little behind the 8 ball, but with some explosive special teams contributions he could be in the running.
- Is the tight end position going to produce? The one position that didn’t ever blossom last year was tight end. There were some small signs of life near the end, but nothing that made a statement. This year, there are no excuses. Someone at this position needs to have at least 500 yards receiving.
- Will Justin Sorensen be the placekicking phenom he was in high school? He is back from his mission, and appears to be the uncontested place kicker to replace BYU career scoring leader Mitch Payne. Sorensen was known for booming 60 yard field goals in high school, but he was a little disappointing as a freshman.
- Will Jordan Pendleton and Romney Fuga return to pre-injury form? Pendleton and Fuga were the two biggest losses during an injury plagued year in 2010. Fully recovered, their presence on the field vastly improves the defense.
- Is Matt Reynolds going to be BYU's first national award winner in 10 years? This is his second year as a top NFL prospect. He is a serious contender for the Outland and Lombardi trophies. BYU has not had a player win a major national award since 2001.
- Will BYU have a 1,000 yard rusher? After five consecutive seasons with a 1,000 yards rusher, the Cougar offense did not produce one in 2010. J.J. Di Luigi made a valiant effort, but he came up short, due to the running back by committee approach. Could that present a problem again, or will one back emerge as the number one guy?
- Is this the year BYU beats TCU again? After two big wins in 2006 and 2007, BYU has suffered painful loses for three straight years. The Horned Frogs have to deal with replacing their starting quarterback and many other starters.
- Will BYU get sweet revenge? Two of the hardest games to stomach in 2010 were the Utah and Utah State games. BYU plays both in-state rivals again this year.
- Will independence be a boom or bust? One of the popular comments about BYU going independent is how the move poses great risk. Succeed and BYU can cash in nicely. Fail and BYU could suffer for years. When 2011 is done, how will the arm chair quarterbacks be judging BYU’s bold decision?
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