BYU Finding Answers to Key Questions
If the first couple of days of BYU fall football practice are any indication, the Cougars appear to be significantly ahead of schedule in answering some key questions for the 2014 season.
Bronco Mendenhall’s squad kicked off camp hoping to see the offense make major strides in the passing game, find replacements for three starting linebackers, including superstar Kyle Van Noy, and find an answer at place kicker.
The head coach and his staff have to feel pretty good about where their team stands as they move into the first full week of practices leading up to the kickoff of the season on Aug. 29, when the Cougars travel to UConn.
Hill on Track
In 2013, the Cougars implemented Robert Anae’s fast-tempo, read-option offense and proceeded to set a school record by rushing for 3,475 yards. They expect to take the next step this season by adding a greater ability to attack defenses through the air.
Quarterback Taysom Hill has worked hard to improve himself as a passer leading up to fall camp, working with former BYU QB John Beck and renowned passing coach Tom House. His experience last month at the Manning Passing Camp has also benefited the junior.
Hill completed just 54 percent of his passes last year, connecting with his receivers for 19 touchdowns, but also throwing 14 interceptions. His completion percentage is a bit deceiving, in that he started the season by completing a mere 35 percent of his passes over the first three games. Over the final ten games he actually completed 60.5 percent of his throws.
Arm strength has never been a question for Taysom. However, his lack of accuracy, timing and decision making contributed to BYU’s difficulty in sustaining drives and converting in the red zone, particularly against BCS-level opponents.
Inconsistent play of an offensive line that rotated a dozen or so players didn’t help the cause either. Anae has indicated that there will be less rotating up front in 2014 and that he expects this group to come together in order to provide Hill enough time to throw it deep to what amounts to a speedier group of pass catchers.
So far, so good.
The relatively small sample size so far would indicate that improvement is on the way. The BYU QBs have been given time to throw in the pocket thus far in camp, resulting in a number of long pass plays not seen in Provo for a few years now.
Hill already appears more polished, poised and consistent as a passer. His release points and accuracy are better and he has effectively thrown the long ball–all bad news for BYU opponents this year. Any improvement in his ability to drive linebackers and defensive backs off the line of scrimmage will not only improve the throwing game, it means that the running game should be more effective as well.
Any worries about BYU’s new receivers were all but put to bed after the first two days of fall camp. UTEP senior transfer Jordan Leslie (6-3, 210 Sr.) has done his best impression of Cody Hoffman thus far, catching everything thrown his way.
He’s faster than Hoffman and runs crisper routes. He also has the same type of sticky hands that Cody possesses. During Saturday’s open practice, Leslie caught a deep pass for a touchdown in 7-on-7 drills, then connected on another long ball from Hill for a touchdown during 11-on-11 action.
Jordan has quickly come up to speed in the offense and appears to have made an almost seamless transition to BYU’s turbo-paced practice environment. There is little doubt that the former Miner will play a significant role on the offense this year, and it would not be a surprise to see him become Hill’s go-to guy once the season gets under way.
While Leslie has been a quick study, Grossmont College transfer Nick Kurtz (6-6, 205 Jr.) had his growing pains while transitioning to the D-1 level this past spring. Now, however, things are really starting to click for one of the most-highly sought after JUCO players in the country. His production over the two opening days of fall camp has been impressive.
During Saturday’s open practice Kurtz showed off his own pair of soft hands, making numerous nice grabs and demonstrating an ability to find the open spots and seams in the secondary.
During 11-on-11 play, he found himself on the scoring end of a 30-yard touchdown strike from back up quarterback Christian Stewart. His rare combination of size and speed is one of the reasons that he was offered a scholarship by USC, Oregon and LSU, among many others.
Throw in the play of former Oregon signee Devon Blackmon (6-1, 185 Jr.), Stanford senior transfer Keanu Nelson (5-11, 185 Sr.) and true freshman Trey Dye (5-9, 175 Fr.), and you have a serious upgrade in overall athleticism at the receiver positions.
Blackmon made a gorgeous, one-handed grab on a deep sideline route on Saturday that brought plenty of cheers from his teammates, as well as the hundreds of BYU fans in attendance. He’s probably the fastest of the incoming receivers and may also make an impact on special teams in the return game.
Not much was expected of Nelson when he signed with the Cougars, but he looks like he has a real chance to make a contribution this year after not getting much playing time in Palo Alto. Stanford employs a more traditional two-receiver set, so there weren’t as many opportunities for him to get on the field as a reserve receiver. Most of his action came as a return specialist.
However, in BYU’s three and four receiver sets, he should see more minutes. Thus far, he has proven to be a strong route runner with good speed and has also demonstrated that he has a great pair of hands. He seems to fit right in with all of the incoming receivers, they can all run and all of them catch everything in their zip code.
Meanwhile, Dye has already been able to work his way into getting some reps with the second and third-team offenses and is likely to see some meaningful playing time during his first season as a Cougar. He has the ability to play in a number of spots on the field.
The new additions, combined with holdovers like Mitch Mathews, Ross Apo and Kurt Henderson, should provide plenty of weapons for Hill to throw to. During the offseason, Anae has said that one of the priorities for the 2014 offense is to threaten defenses more effectively and open things up with the long ball. At first blush, this group of receivers certainly appears capable of doing just that.
Van Noy Part II
BYU goes into a new season looking for ways to replace the other-worldly productivity of Kyle Van Noy. However, if Saturday’s performance was an accurate sample, then BYU’s next Van Noy-like player may already be on campus.
True freshman Fred Warner (6-3, 215 Fr.) is already turning heads with his play-making ability at outside linebacker, including coming up with two interceptions late in the day during 11-on-11 action. Warner turned down scholarship offers from USC, along with a number of other PAC-12 programs, in order to play for BYU, and it’s already looking like a major recruiting coup for the Cougars.
It’s early, but it looks like the coaches will be hard pressed to keep Warner off the field this season, especially if he keeps making the kind of plays he has so far. His performance further bolsters what looks like an embarrassment of riches at linebacker.
Back up mike linebacker, Austin Heder, also had a pick on Saturday and returned it for a touchdown. Adding the talents of players like Warner, Heder, Tyler Cook and Troy Hinds to a group that already includes Bronson Kaufusi, Alani Fua, Zac Stout, Manoa Pikula, Jherremya Leuta-Douyere, Michael Alisa and Sae Tautu, should allow the linebackers to be a strength of the team once again.
Getting a Kick Out of Fall Camp
BYU started fall camp without any real answers at place kicker. The loss of Justin Sorensen leaves a group of four kickers on the roster who have exactly zero experience kicking in a Division-1 college football game.
Saturday, three kickers from that group combined to go 8-of-9 on field goal attempts inside of 50 yards. Oregon State transfer Andrew Mikkelson has joined Moose Bingham, Trevor Samson and true freshman Corey Edwards, although Edwards will not be available until after the start of classes this year.
The trio of Mikkelson, Bingham and Samson will likely continue their battle right up to the first game of the season. And while there will probably be some hiccups along the way, coaches have to feel much better about the kicking situation, especially with the addition of Mikkelson, who appeared to have the most lively leg of the three on Saturday.
Regardless of who wins the job, the Cougars probably won’t be attempting many field goals beyond 45 yards this season. There’s also a chance that BYU will employ multiple kickers, splitting up the place kicking and kickoff duties.