Spring Game Wrap Up: BYU Offense
PROVO–BYU’s spring football scrimmage on Saturday gave nearly 7,000 fans an opportunity to get a look at their team for 2014.
Although the majority of the projected starters played very little, or not at all, fans did get a chance to see several players who will make important contributions this coming season.
The Cougars are coming off an 8-5 finish last year after facing one of the toughest schedules in program history.
The slate gets easier in 2014, and with expected improvement in the second year of the zone-read offense in Provo, a return to double-digit wins should be in the cards.
Spring camp always plays an important role in laying the foundation for a successful upcoming season and identifying those players who are ready step up and become the next leaders and stars in a BYU uniform.
While practice will continue this week, here is my evaluation of how the offense is shaping up this spring–position group by position group–including thoughts from Saturday’s scrimmage in LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Junior quarterback Taysom Hill worked to improve his game as a passer during the offseason as well as in spring camp. During Saturday’s action, his mechanics did look improved and his production closer to a level that will be needed in order for the offense take the next step.
In somewhat of a surprise, Hill competed for the entire length of the nearly 90-minute scrimmage and completed 70 percent of his passes (19-of-27) for 308 yards and three touchdowns, while also rushing for 48 yards on nine carries.
He still has a tendency to drop his shoulder a little when throwing to his left, creating a three-quarter arm delivery and a lower release point. In fact, he had a couple of passes batted down when throwing to the opposite side of the field on Saturday. However, his timing and ability to see the defense does seem to be improved and his decision making in the passing game was quite good.
If he can raise his completion percentage from 54 percent last year into the mid-60s or beyond this year, the Cougar offense will become very difficult to defend.
The backup quarterback position currently belongs to former Snow College transfer Christian Stewart and its highly likely that he’ll hold onto the job throughout 2014. The coaches haven’t been shy about the fact that the job is Stewart’s to lose and on Saturday he looked like a guy who could step in and move the offense if something were to happen to Hill this season.
His ability as a passer is probably ahead of where where Hill was at this point last last season, and, although he doesn’t possess Taysom’s high-end speed, he appears to be more than capable as a runner. He has less straight-line speed, but possess more shiftiness than Hill.
Offensive line coach Garett Tujague has said that he is very pleased with the progress of the offensive line this spring.
The coaches moved Tuni Kanuch over to guard from the defense. They also received the services of tackle Ului Lapuaho this spring following his return from a mission. Both players look like they will be key contributors on the line this season and help to solidify a position group that has been a weakness the past few years.
Lapuaho appears to be the future at left tackle, but the true freshman may not be the starter there when the Cougars open the season at UConn in late August. De’Ondre Wesley is a good bet to be the starter on the left side, at least to begin the season. Wesley did not play on Saturday while he heals up from a broken hand.
Tujague and offensive coordinator Robert Anae have also experimented this spring by giving sophomore Brayden Kearsley plenty of reps at tackle, a position he played a lot in high school. He saw action at right tackle on Saturday, and could provide some help there this year, although it’s good bet that he’ll be one of the starting guards when the new season kicks off.
Ryker Mathews also saw reps at tackle, as well as at guard. Ryker was the starting left tackle until he suffered injuries to both hips that required double hip surgery following the 2012 season. Ryker saw most of his playing time at guard last year and that could be the case again in 2014.
The starting offensive line could look like this when the season starts: Wesley (LT), Mathews (LG), Alletto (C), Kearsley (RG) and Lapuaho (RT). Players like Kanuch, Solomone Kafu, Edward Fusi, Michael Yeck, Brock Stringham and Kyle Johnson look like the guys who may have the best chance to contribute in the two-deep rotation.
Reserve running backs Nate Carter and Jeremiah Burr were the featured backs during the scrimmage, as the staff looked to protect BYU’s primary ball carriers. Both Burr and Carter fumbled the ball multiple times on Saturday.
If he can hold on to the football, Carter is a shifty little runner who could be another interesting prospect in an already deep and loaded backfield that includes Jamaal Williams, Paul Lasike, Alge Brown and Adam Hine. Nate is the kind of player who might also be able to contribute in the slot or in the return game.
As the Cougars head into a new season, it appears that running back will be a strength of the team once again. There’s a chance that that could change though, depending on what happens with Williams’ legal situation. The 18-year old has a court date in May after being arrested in February on misdemeanor charges of underage drinking.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has said Jamaal is in good standing with the team, but that could change if he were to be found guilty. The junior has entered a plea of not guilty in the case.
Onlookers got a preview on Saturday of what sophomore wide receiver Mike Davis will bring to the offense this coming season. In high school, Davis was one of the top sprinters in the state of California, and he flashed some of that speed on Saturday when he caught a 53-yard bomb from Hill.
After serving as a back up cornerback on defense last year, Mike still has a lot of work to do to in order to improve his route running, but there is no question that he provides the kind of deep threat rarely seen in Provo. His ability to stretch defenses vertically will help open up the short-to-mid-range passing game as well as the ground attack.
Heralded junior college transfer Nick Kurtz had five receptions for 47 yards during the scrimmage. The 6-foot-6 wide receiver is another newcomer to the offense that should help open things up for Anae and the offense. Clocked at 4.5 in the forty, the junior has an unusual level of speed for player of his height.
He ran mostly short routes on Saturday, but both he and Davis should get plenty of looks over the deep middle this year, an area that has been virtually unexploited the past few seasons by the BYU offense. Because Mitch Mathews and Ross Apo have been out with injuries this spring, Kurtz and Davis have received invaluable work with Hill.
With the addition of speedster Devon Blackmon in the fall, BYU could sport one of the fastest group of wide receivers in school history. A rotation that includes Mathews, Apo, Kurtz, Davis, Blackmon and UTEP transfer Jordan Leslie at wide receiver should provide Hill with plenty of targets and playmakers on the outside.
Inside receiver Terenn Houk also had a nice day Saturday with three receptions for 74 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown catch. Houk and Devin Mahina have received the most reps at the position during the spring. Mahina had just one catch on Saturday, but it resulted in a 5-yard touchdown.
The question is if the bigger-bodied, tight end type of player has a future in the BYU offense. The arrival of athletic slot-type receivers like Blackmon and Trey Dye later this year could further erode the already diminished playing time for the traditional tight ends.
On the flip side however, intriguing tight end prospects like 6-foot-7 Colby Jorgensen and 6-foot-8 Matt Sumsion are set to enter the program this season from the mission field. The Cougars also signed one of the top high school tight ends in the country in February in Matt Bushman.
The Bottom Line
With Hill’s improvement in the passing game, better play from the offensive line and a bevy of talented players to get the ball to at the skill positions, the offense should see improvement over last season when the Cougars struggled in the red zone and had too many three-and-outs.
While they scored points and rolled up some nice yardage numbers, a lack of execution was an issue in a number of games. With a full year under their belts in Anae’s go-fast-go-hard offense, the Cougars were able to hit the ground running over the past month. That experience and the accompanying comfort level that comes with it should translate into better offensive efficiency and production in 2014.
Next up: at look at the defense