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BYU football: Cougars wary of hungry Huskies

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 5:51 a.m. MDT

PROVO — A proud football program with a storied history, the University of Washington fell on hard times during the past decade.

But now the Huskies, who haven't recorded a winning season since 2002, are looking to continue their climb from the depths of a winless campaign in 2008 and back to national prominence.

Then there's BYU, which has won at least 10 games and finished in the Top 25 in each of the last four years. But after losing a bevy of stars, the Cougars are beginning a new era of sorts with a host of new players.

Washington, basking in the stability of four-year starter Jake Locker, who could be the nation's top quarterback, appears to be trending upward. BYU, breaking in two different quarterbacks with little or no collegiate experience, appears to be trending downward.

Chances are the directions in which these programs are heading could become clearer when the Cougars and Huskies open the season today (5 p.m., CBS-C) at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Under second-year coach Steve Sarkisian, a once-wounded Washington program has recaptured some of its swagger. He said this season "is setting up to be something pretty special in a (Pac-10) conference that is ripe for the taking."

The feeling in Seattle is much different than it was when the Huskies and Cougars last played two years ago.

"The attitude and approach to the game has changed around here," said Locker. "Guys are excited and have bought into the same program across the board. When you're able to do that as a football team, that makes you powerful. It's fun to be a part of and it's created a lot of excitement about this program."

While Washington is mired in a 12-game road losing streak — it hasn't won a road game since November 2007 — the Huskies made marked improvement in Sarkisian's first year, finishing 5-7.

As for the Cougars, they are hoping to keep on winning, despite losing leaders like Max Hall, Dennis Pitta, Harvey Unga, Andrew George, Jan Jorgensen and Scott Johnson. BYU will start a quarterback not named Hall for the first time since December 2006.

"We don't ever feel like any year is a rebuilding year. We feel like we've got great people every year," said junior offensive lineman Matt Reynolds. "Even though we're replacing different positions, and there are different holes to fill every year, the idea is that we continue to grow as a team and as a program, regardless of who we're replacing."

There are only six senior starters on the Cougars' offense and defense combined. Six positions will feature players who will be making their first starts in a BYU uniform — quarterback Riley Nelson; tight end Mike Muehlmann (or Richard Wilson); linebackers Shane Hunter, Aveni Leung-Wai and Jameson Frazier; and safety Steven Thomas.

Several true freshmen are expected to make their collegiate debuts today — quarterback Jake Heaps, running back Joshua Quezada, wide receiver Ross Apo, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Zac Stout, and defensive end Graham Rowley.

Assistant head coach Lance Reynolds knows there's plenty of uncertainty because of this team's youth.

"We're way inexperienced, we're way young, especially on offense," he said. "We'll see how it all unfolds. It will depend on how well we execute and react to difficulties and all the things that usually come with youth, like inconsistency.

"There are still questions out there. With any young team, it's going to be like that. You sometimes wonder if you're ready. Even the (coaching) staff. You wonder, 'How good are we?' I don't think anyone knows."

At the same time, Reynolds knows the offense has potential.

"The nice thing is, we're good up front on the offensive line," he said. "Our wide receivers are talented to the max. Our quarterbacks are talented, just not experienced. Jake's a very talented young man with a great future ahead of him. They're good players. It's going to be fun to see how they react."

Coach Bronco Mendenhall is also eager to see how his young players perform in a game setting.

"They are going to have to play more for me to trust what they are capable of, and how they are going to demonstrate that on the field," he said. "Off the field … I trust them already. How they prepare and how they play in game situations, that will have to be demonstrated."

Senior safety Andrew Rich said he has confidence in the newcomers.

"I think we're deep. We have guys who are young and athletic and have been waiting for their turn," he said. "Last year we had veterans who ruled the roost for three or four years and some younger guys who have been waiting for their chance and watching those guys all last year. Despite the fact they haven't played very much, I think we have a team that's going to open a lot of eyes."

Cougars' season-opener

Washington at BYU

Today, 5 p.m.

LaVell Edwards Stadium

TV: CBS C-HD

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com

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