Matt Gade, Deseret News
PROVO — As BYU opens fall camp Friday, the Cougars are hoping to put together a special season.
It’s been five years since BYU — entering its fourth campaign as an independent — won at least 11 games and finished in the final top-25 rankings.
With a less-challenging schedule than last season, and a host of talented players returning, including junior quarterback Taysom Hill, the Cougars have a chance to make some noise nationally in 2014.
Players reported to fall camp Thursday, and BYU will hold its first practice Friday afternoon in preparation for its season-opener at UConn on Aug. 29.
Other big road games loom on the schedule, such as meetings against Texas, Central Florida and Boise State.
Can this be a memorable season for the Cougars?
“We think we can compete with anybody in the country,” Hill said during media day festivities in June. “I think we’ve proven that year-in, year-out. I think we have some opportunities to win some big games and continue that same mentality. We’re out there to win every football game. Our mindset is that we can.”
While BYU’s defense has been solid and consistent under coach Bronco Mendenhall, who’s embarking on his 10th season at the helm, the offense has lagged behind in recent years.
During the offseason, the Cougars have worked to improve the play on the offensive line and welcomed an influx of potential playmakers in wide receiver transfers Jordan Leslie (UTEP), Nick Kurtz (Grossmont JC), Devon Blackmon (Riverside JC) and Keanu Nelson (Stanford).
In its second year under offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s uptempo attack, the Cougar offense is eyeing more efficiency on third down and better production in the red zone.
“Our biggest thing is, we’re going to start scripting our red-zone stuff,” Hill said. “As we broke down our film from last year, we saw what plays worked the best, and what plays didn’t work the best. We’ll start to put our very best stuff in the red zone. That was an emphasis this spring. It helped us improve.
"Penalties really hurt us last year in the end zone and that’s been another emphasis," Hill continued. "We might look into getting personnel packages in the red zone. The new receivers we have coming in will give us the opportunity to put in different packages for different plays.”
With Hill and running back Jamaal Williams, BYU boasts one of the top rushing tandems in the country, as both players amassed more than 1,000 yards on the ground in 2013.
Defensively, the Cougars need to fill the void left by stars like Kyle Van Noy, Eathyn Manumaleuna, Daniel Sorensen and Uani Unga. Bronson Kaufusi has switched from the defensive line to outside linebacker and the Cougars will enjoy the return of two cornerbacks that missed the entire 2013 season due to knee injuries — Jordan Johnson and Trent Trammell. Meanwhile, safety Harvey Jackson, a transfer from Nebraska, will be vying for a starting job in the secondary.
In a change from previous seasons, Mendenhall has handed the reins of defensive play-calling to defensive coordinator Nick Howell.
On special teams, BYU will be trying to find a new placekicker, with Vance “Moose” Bingham, Trevor Samson and Corey Edwards battling for kicking duties.
As for the intangibles, there’s plenty of leaders and chemistry on this team, according to wide receiver Mitch Mathews.
“I feel like we have more guys who are friends. The best teams BYU’s ever had is when your best players are your best leaders, and that's what we have now,” Mathews said. “That’s what’s most exciting to me, to know of the potential we have this year.”
BYU’s second practice, Saturday, on the outdoor practice field located north of the Student Athlete building, is open to the public. The practice starts at 10:30 a.m.
A scrimmage on Aug. 15 will also be open to the public. It will begin at noon at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
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