The Hoos 2013 season begins at home with the BYU Cougars coming into town. The Hoos last faced BYU at home in 2000, as the second part of a home-and-home. The Hoos prevailed in Provo in 1999, 45-40, before falling 38-35 at home. That game, incidentally, was seen by over 60,000 people, a Scott Stadium record at the time. This game will probably be more like 45,000. That's how far the program has fallen. (Ed. Note: UVA is reporting that under 4000 tickets remain for this game. So perhaps crowd support will be better than I expected.)
Writing the first preview of the season is never easy, because there are so many unknowns. Dealing with new players, new coaching staffs, and new schemes means that nobody really knows what to watch for. Add in the fact that most of the players are just kids, and are still growing into their bodies, and judging players becomes very difficult. The Hoos have a new Offensive Coordinator, a new Defensive Coodinator, and a new Special Teams Coordinator. They also have a new Associate Head Coach. These 4 guys bring over 100 years of combined coaching experience into the program. That can't help but be a good thing. The position coaches are largely the same, so that should add some degree of stability.
BYU also has new coordinators in place. For the past few years, Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall has acted as the team's defensive coordinator. This year, former secondary coach Nick Powell is the defensive coordinator (he's also still the secondary coach). This promotion may be in name only, as Mendenhall has announced that he will continue to make the defensive calls. On offense, Robert Anae returns to the OC position that he vacated in 2010 when he left for a similar position at Arizona. In Tucson, he worked under head coach Rich Rodriguez using a spread, hurry-up high motion offense. This is the offense BYU will look to run now. It is a big change for them, and combined with some new personnel, means BYUs offense may be playing catch-up during the early parts of the season.
BYU Offense (starters in bold)
WR: Cody Hoffman - 6'4" 210 lb, Senior; Skyler Ridley - 6'0" 182 lb, Senior; J.D. Falslev - 5'8" 175 lb, Senior; Ross Apo - 6'3" 207 lb, Junior, Mitch Matthews - 6'6" 206; Sophomore; - 5'10" 190 lb, Sophomore
LT: Ryker Mathews - 6'6" 309 lb, Sophomore, Brad Wilcox - 6'7" 300 lb, Freshman
LG: Solomone Kafu - 6'2" 315 lb, Junior, Brayden Kearsley - 6'4" 295, Junior
C: Terrance Alletto - 6'3" 292, Sophomore, Brayden Kearsley
RG: Brock Stringham - 6'6" 292 lb, Junior, Manaaki Vaitai, 6'3" 317 lb, Senior
RT: Michael Yeck - 6'8" 292 lb, Junior, De'Ondre Wesley - 6'7" 330 lb, Junior
Hill is coming off an ACL tear suffered last year in the 6th game of the season. By all accounts, he is fully healed, but it remains to be seen how he (and his knee) will react under live game conditions. Hill has similar skills to Watford, but he's more advanced as both a passer and runner. He's also bigger and maybe faster. Like many BYU players, Hill is older than a true sophomore would normally be, as a result of spending 2 years on his Mormon mission.
Hill's backup, Olsen, is a similar QB, although not as good a runner and maybe a bit more advanced as a passer. He started his career at Southern Utah, and then spent 2 years on his mission before transferring to BYU and sitting out last year. He is, therefore, a redshirt sophomore. If Hill isn't quite ready, or if he struggles, Olsen will play.
The Cougars are going to be using a hurry-up offense. This will be similar to the offense Rich Rodriguez has run at WVU, UM and UA. That means a lot of no-huddle, but not necessarily the fastest pace. They will often line up and stand there for 10 seconds while the play is signaled in from the sidelines. This can be infuriating to fans, as well as for defenses. That isn't to say that they won't play fast. If they see a mismatch, they'll snap it right away and try to take advantage. If they see the defense subbing, they'll snap it and try to take advantage or at least get a substitution penalty on the defense. This type of defense puts a lot of stress on players and coaches to ensure that the correct personnel are on the field, and lined up correctly.
BYU is going to run almost exclusively from the shotgun. Hill isn't the tallest of QBs, and the shotgun lets him survey the defense better. It also opens up the read-option, something we're going to see a lot of. BYU will use the read-option instead of regular play action. Hill will fake a handoff to the RB and roll out before throwing a pass. The Hoos DBs are going to have to stay with their man even if it seems Hill is running. That means the DEs and OLBs are going to be responsible for keeping Hill in front of them.
Obviously, when Hill does run, the defense wants to get a shot on him. Not in an attempt to hurt him, but just to make him think twice about running next time. If you can turn Hill into a pocket passer, you've gone a long way towards shutting down BYU's offense. But, defensive players must be wary of the new rule about leading with the helmet. Players will be ejected for any play where they lead with the helmet. The Hoos do not have enough depth to lose starters due to silly penalties.
The BYU offense will use a variety of formations. Their depth chart lists a RB, an H-back, 2 WRs, a slot receiver and a TE. That is 6 skill positions, which is more than is permitted. The base formation, however, will likely be a single back with 3 WRs and an H-back.
Like Hill, RB Jamaal Williams played as a true freshman last year. Unlike Hill, he hasn't done an LDS mission, so he's much younger. However, he broke the BYU record for carries, yards and TDs by a true freshman and he's been named to the preseason Doak Walker Award list. He's fast and he's quick enough to make people miss. He's best in space, so the Hoos need to watch him on screens and shovel passes. He's dangerous on the read-option because he can get outside and pick up huge chunks of yardage. He's not really a between the tackles kind of back, he's going to look to bounce things outside. Getting interior penetration is the best way to stop him, force him outside where the pursuit can get to him. If the DBs can get a hand on him to slow him down, he's not really fast enough to elude the backside pursuit.
The bigger back is Alisa, who missed most of last year with an arm injury. He's had a couple of surgeries on the arm, but he seems to be ready to go. He'll likely get goalline carries. He's not near the all around runner than Williams is, but he's a load to bring down. Alisa is another guy who spent 2 years on a mission, so he's one of the oldest players in college football this year. He started his career, before the mission, as a LB.
The WR corp is good, led by Hoffman, who had 100 catches last year. He's got over 200 for his career, and over 2700 yards. He's a Biletnikoff Award nominee and could very well win it. At 6'4" and 210 pounds, he is a tough matchup for Nicholson. Simply staying with him won't be enough, because Hoffman has the size and hands to go up and get a ball over Nicholson. Hoffman isn't really a big play guy, averaging just over 13 ypa during his career. He is very dangerous in the red zone and on jump balls. Simply put, Nicholson is going to need help.
Apo was a bigtime recruit, but he hasn't been as explosive as hoped, and Ridley has won the starting nod over him. We'll see plenty of both, however. Apo could pose problems because of his size. We could see the Hoos switch the 2nd CB spot depending on which WR is out there. Canady has the size to match up with Apo, while Hoskey provides a better look against Ridley. Friel and Thompson are basically co-starters and both will see extensive time. Friel is the better receiver and had 30 catches and 5 TDs last year. Thompson didn't have a single catch last year, but had 6 receptions for 95 yards as a freshman in 2009. (Yep, another missionary.)
Falslev will be the slot guy, and he'll also return punts. He was one of the top PR guys in the nation last year, averaging nearly 10 ypa. The Hoos punt coverage team will be tested early on. In base situations, the Hoos would like to keep Falslev covered by a S, most likely Brandon Phelps. In nickel situations, look for Hoskey to be covering Falslev a lot.
The OL is one place where the 2 year mission really helps. BYU players are often 20 years old when they first step onto the field, as opposed to 18 for most schools. A 20 year old is just physically more mature than an 18 year old. The BYU OL is big and experienced. The right side of the line is the stronger side. The left side is inexperienced, with two juniors who saw only limited action last year. Both of those guys are tall and lanky, and could get pushed around a bit by the Hoos DL.
Last year's BYU defense was the 3rd ranked unit in the country, behind Alabama and FSU. Their rush defense was 2nd nationally, and their pass defense was 10th. Passing efficiency defense was 19th. They were 22nd in sacks and 25th in TFLs. However, their 22 turnovers forced tied for just 57th in the country.
BYU runs a 3-4 defense, which is actually a little bit like a 3-3-5 defense. The second ILB is called a "Buck" LB and acts as a bit of a S/LB hybrid.
The LBs are, far and away, the strength of this unit. Van Noy, in particular, is a force off the edge. He's likely to be a first round pick in the draft next year, and may well have been this year had he come out early. He had 13 sacks and 22 TFLs last year, to go along with 2 INTs, 5 passes defended, 6 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery and 8 QB hurries. Oh, and Van Noy also blocked two kicks. Last year, he had Ezekiel Ansah at DE taking attention away from him, but Ansah's on the Detroit Lions now. The Cougars are replacing both DEs, so Van Noy will have to prove he can still be productive when the offense is focused on him.
Spencer Hadley spent last season as the OLB opposite Van Noy, but now he's moved to the Buck position. This is a good switch for him, because he's nowhere near the pass rusher that Kyle is, but he's all over the field. He finished 3rd on the team in tackles last year, with 66, and also broke up 7 passes.
Unga was the leading tackler among non-starters last year, with 28. He also had 3 TFLs, a sack, an INT, and a FF. He started his college career at Oregon State, but then transferred (and walked-on) to BYU so his wife could be closer to her family. He's a bigger guy who runs well, so he should fit in well opposite Van Noy. Pikula is another OLB to watch out for, he's young and inexperienced but has a lot of athleticism.
Replacing Ansah is Bronson Kaufusi, the son of the DL coach. Bronson also plays on the BYU basketball team, and was the team's top recruit in 2010. Bronson's brother Korbin is also a member of the team, but is on his mission in South Korea. Manumaleuna missed most of last season with an injury, but was started 21 games over the prior 2 years. He's been named to the Outland Award Watch list. Peck is a converted TE who didn't play a ton last year. The staff is high on him. Kaufusi is the most talented of these guys, but none of them will provide what Ansah did last year, especially so early in the season.
The loss of CB Jordan Johnson really can't be overstated. He's the one CB the Cougars have that is a true ball-hawking cover guy. Johnson had just 1 pick, but he had 15 passed broken up and also had 48 tackles. His replacement is probably going to be Daniel, a junior college transfer. Daniel is bigger, but obviously lacks the experience. Behind Daniel are true freshman Michael Davis, who was actually recruited as a WR. Sorensen is the leader of the secondary, and was actually the team's second leading tackler (the leader was Brandon Ogletree, now with the Dolphins as an UDFA). Sorensen also had 3 INTs, 5 passes broken up, 2 forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Mike Hague is a converted WR who missed most of last year after suffering a knee injury. He's inexperienced, having played most special teams since his switch to the defensive side. Other than Sorenson, the Cougars secondary is inexperienced and not particularly fast. True freshman Dallin Leavitt is a burner and could see time in nickel packages, especially if the Hoos WRs are getting open early.
The BYU defense is replacing the entire DL and much of the secondary, plus two LBs. That is a lot of talent to replace, so getting them in week 1 is probably good. While they aren't likely to be quite as good as last year's senior-laden team, they are still going to be very good. Our offense, especially on the OL, is going to have to play very well if we're going to score enough points.
K - Justin Sorensen - 6'1" 243 lb, Senior
P - Scott Arellano - 6'1' 180 lb, Junior
PR - J.D. Falslev
KR - Adam Hine; Paul Lasike
Sorensen has been the PK for the past 3 years. He's made just 55% of his kicks (22-40), but has converted on 96% of his PATs. He's also been good for 75 touchbacks on 209 KOs, which is a solid ratio. He's also had 3 kicks blocked, so the Hoos special teams could have a chance to make a big play.
BYU was second in the nation last year in punting, but lost punter Riley Stephenson to graduation. Arellano takes his place, but they have to expect to drop after losing a 4 year starter at P.
As I mentioned already, Falslev is one of the top PRs in the nation, and will test the Hoos coverage teams. The two backup RBs are the primary KRs.
Last year, BYU was 63th in the nation in PR (Falslev was 29th) and 28th in KR. They were 37th in PR defense and 48th in KR defense. In case you weren't sure, that is all a lot better than the Hoos fared. We'll know quickly how Larry Lewis is working out as Special Teams Coordinator
BYU has been to a bowl game 7 years running, and has won 4 in a row. For many of those years, they've been very good, winning double digit games 5 times under Bronco Mendenhall. Last year, however, they finished 8-5 despite playing just the 83rd toughest schedule in the nation. And that was with the 3rd ranked defense in the nation.
Their defense must replace 7 starters, and one of the returners (Hadley) is moving to a new position. The offense returns most of its starters, but that offense was merely average last year, and the QB is coming off major knee surgery.
On paper, the matchup favors BYU. Their offense and defense were both better than Virginia's respective units last year. However, there are many factors that point in Virginia's direction. BYU has to travel a long way to get to Charlottesville for this game, although road trips for week 1 are probably less taxing than later in the season. The Hoos defense returns 7 starters, 9 bigtime contributors and could be very good. But there may be some growing pains.
Both teams are breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball. That means we could see a sloppy game, as the teams are getting up to speed on new formations, plays and situations. A sloppy game should probably favor the home team, but those things tend to be unpredictable.
This game is really difficult to call. There are simply too many unknowns going in, for both teams. Unfortunately, for the Hoos, BYU has a few less question marks, a bit more talent, and a better foundation.
Prediction: Cougars 24, Hoos 10