PROVO — Boasting a veteran team led by senior quarterback Riley Nelson, and set to embark on its second season as an independent, BYU opens fall camp today.
"It's going to be fun, to be out there with helmets on, running around with pads again, hearing them popping, stuff like that," said Nelson. "Training is fun, lifting weights is fun, watching film is fun, running our own practices like we do is fun — but there's nothing quite like the fall."
The Cougars open the campaign at home against Washington State on Aug. 30. And, as always, expectations going into the season are high.
"We're excited and anxious. We fell short of our goals last year. Everyone knows that," said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "Everyone knows if we do everything we can, we can win all of our games this year. Obviously, that's the goal. That's the goal for every team in the country. We really think we can do it. We think we have the right group of guys to do it."
With the season-opener less than a month away, here are five points of emphasis BYU will be addressing during fall camp:
The offensive line
The Cougars are essentially breaking in a new offensive line after losing Matt Reynolds and Terence Brown. While three starters return, two will play new positions this season.
Braden Hansen is expected to move from right guard to left guard, and Houston Reynolds will likely take over at center after playing left guard a year ago. Highly touted freshman Ryker Mathews is projected as the starter at left tackle, and senior Braden Brown should man the right tackle spot. Brock Stringham impressed during spring ball and could be the starter at right guard, though he could be pressed by Walter Kahaiali'i and Manaaki Vaitai.
Due to various injuries, many of the offensive linemen were sidelined during the spring, and will need time to jell during fall camp.
"I feel like we have the talent," Nelson said of the offensive line. "If our guys' brains and knowledge of the offense can catch up to their talent, by the end of fall camp, I feel like we'll have a deep O-line."
The run game
Last season, BYU's ground attack struggled through the first few games of the season, hindering the Cougars' offensive production.
BYU's top rusher a year ago, J.J. Di Luigi, is gone, while junior Michael Alisa, who rushed for 455 yards a year ago, is expected to be the featured back. With Josh "Juice" Quezada deciding to transfer a couple of weeks ago, there are opportunities for David Foote, Adam Hine, Paul Lasike and true freshman Jamaal Williams to contribute.
The Cougars will be boosted by the return of fullback Iona Pritchard, who suffered a broken leg during scrimmage in fall camp last year. Coach Bronco Mendenhall compares Pritchard to former BYU fullback Manase Tonga in the way he can catch passes and block. And, of course, the Cougars have a running threat in Nelson, whose ability to scramble should keep opposing defenses honest.
Injuries are always a part of fall camp. It's the tightrope Mendenhall tries to walk every August, striking a balance between keeping players healthy while getting his team prepared for the season.
During spring ball, an alarmingly high number of players were sidelined due to injuries or offseason surgeries. The Cougars are hoping those players will be back and ready to go.
One of those is star linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who underwent shoulder surgery last winter.
"A lot of people think I just played half the year with an injured shoulder," Van Noy said at media day in June. "It's been the last two years. Mentally, I'm 100 percent. Physically, I'm not there yet. I'll be there soon."
Other players to watch include offensive lineman Ryker Mathews; wide receiver Ross Apo; fullback Iona Pritchard; tight ends Austin Holt, Richard Wilson and Devin Mahina; and placekicker Justin Sorensen, who has been hampered by a back injury.
"I'd love to see how he's really doing," Mendenhall said of Sorensen in June. "He tells me he's making progress. Anytime you have a back injury and it's affected you, I have a concern."
The backup quarterback situation
While BYU is happy to have a senior starting at quarterback in Nelson, the Cougars have precious little experience behind him. Should the injury-prone Nelson go down, his backup, senior James Lark, will step in.
Behind Lark are Jason Munns, Taysom Hill and Ammon Olsen. Hill is regarded as the frontrunner to replace Nelson next season. So how will the coaching staff handle the quarterback situation?
Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman has said he would prefer that Hill and Olsen not redshirt this season, adding that those decisions will be made during fall camp based on their performances. Will there be enough reps to go around for Nelson, Lark and Hill and Olsen? If Hill does not redshirt, how much will he play this season?
Evaluating the newcomers
With so many upperclassmen on the roster, it may be difficult for new players to rise up the depth chart.
However, BYU does have several intriguing newcomers that could make an impact, including defensive lineman Theodore King; running backs Paul Lasike (a Cougar rugby star), Adam Hine, and Jamaal Williams; and wide receivers Terenn Houk and Dylan Collie.
Collie, the younger brother of former Cougar star Austin Collie, is a true freshman. Nelson has liked what he's seen from Collie during summer workouts.
"I've been impressed with Dylan Collie, with his attitude and preparation," Nelson said. "He's just a fun guy to be around. He's a football guy. Is he going to be No. 1 on the depth chart Game One? No. Is he going to need to be there to help us at some point in the season? I can almost guarantee it."