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BYU football: Cougars survive blustery year

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 9:20 a.m. MDT

BYU quarterback Riley Nelson will return as a senior to lead an experienced ballclub in the 2012 campaign.   (Ravell Call, Deseret News) BYU quarterback Riley Nelson will return as a senior to lead an experienced ballclub in the 2012 campaign. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

PROVO — BYU's inaugural season as an independent featured both turbulence and triumph.

There were dramatic victories, close losses, blowout wins, and a humiliating 44-point defeat to archrival Utah at home.

Along the way, there was a change at quarterback as Riley Nelson replaced Jake Heaps (who eventually transferred to Kansas), and rampant speculation about BYU possibly joining the Big 12 or the Big East.

The Cougars also received unprecedented exposure, with 11 of BYU's 13 games broadcast on the ESPN family of networks.

In the end, the Cougars earned a last-second triumph over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl that gave BYU a 10-3 record — the fifth time in the last six seasons that it posted at least 10 wins under coach Bronco Mendenhall — and a No. 25 ranking in the final USA Today Coaches poll.

BYU's #13 Riley Nelson looks down field on a run up the middle of the line as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) BYU's #13 Riley Nelson looks down field on a run up the middle of the line as BYU and Utah State play Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 at Lavell Edwards Stadium. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The Cougars are one of only 11 programs to be nationally ranked in at least one of the two major polls in five of the last six years. BYU finished just outside the Associated Press poll at No. 26.

"I still believe the reason we have success at BYU is the people I'm able to surround myself with, that's players and coaches," Mendenhall said after the bowl game. "I consider that the secret to consistency. While we still have room to grow and improve, and we look forward to that, the future looks bright."

Based on how they finished, the Cougars could be ranked in the preseason polls next fall. And with a significant number of returning players, BYU is hoping that 2012 could be a banner year. The Cougars open spring practices on March 5.

"The most successful teams in college football are senior-laden. If you look at us, we're going to be juniors and seniors (in 2012)," Nelson said. "A lot of guys have experience and have been around the block. It's exciting. We have that chemistry. We love the battle and the fight, not just on the field, but off the field. The fight, the winter conditioning, coach Mendenhall's workouts are tough. We have that foundation to build on."

Much of the Cougars' success will depend on how they start, and with games against Washington State, Utah, Boise State, Oregon State and Notre Dame in the first two months of the season, BYU has a shot at proving itself early.

Here's a glance at the Cougars in 2012:

OFFENSE

History says that when BYU starts a senior quarterback, the Cougars enjoy a big season. Nelson, who will be a senior in 2012, is a team leader who has displayed a knack for winning. He came off the bench to engineer a fourth-quarter comeback win over Utah State, and with that performance, he wrested control of the starting job and turned the 2011 season around. Nelson ended up throwing for 1,717 yards, while rushing for 392 yards, and he finished No. 16 nationally in pass efficiency.

Nelson has a bevy of weapons at his disposal, most notably wide receiver Cody Hoffman, who caught the game-winning pass in the Armed Forces Bowl. Hoffman had 61 receptions for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns. He will be joined by several other talented receivers, including Ross Apo and JD Falslev.

The Cougars were depleted at tight end due to injuries to Devin Mahina, Richard Wilson and Austin Holt last season. But they're all expected to return, along with Kaneakua Friel and Marcus Mathews.

At running back, BYU loses leading rusher JJ Di Luigi as well as Bryan Kariya, but Michael Alisa, Joshua Quezada and redshirt freshman Adam Hine will be counted on to carry the rushing attack. At fullback, Iona Pritchard, who missed the 2011 season with an injury, will be back.

Perhaps the biggest question for the offense will be on the offense line, where the Cougars have to replace left tackle Matt Reynolds, who had 52 career starts, and center Terence Brown, who tallied 39 career starts. Braden Brown, Braden Hansen and Houston Reynolds will return to anchor the O-line. There are young players in the program that are expected to emerge, like Ryker Mathews, who was injured this season, and center Blair Tushaus.

DEFENSE

The nucleus of BYU's defense, which ended up ranked No. 13 nationally in total defense, No. 22 in scoring defense, No. 15 in pass efficiency defense, and No. 19 in rushing defense, remains in tact next season.

While the Cougars lose linebackers Jordan Pendleton, Jameson Frazier, and Jadon Wagner; defensive lineman Hebron Fangupo; and defensive backs Travis Uale and Corby Eason, the returning players provide stability to the defense.

Headlining the group is linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who scored the game-winning touchdown in the season-opener at Ole Miss. Van Noy made big plays throughout the year, including 15 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks and three interceptions. He'll be joined by the team's leading tackler, Brandon Ogletree, and Uona Kaveinga. Spencer Hadley, Tyler Beck, and Alani Fua are among those expected to make contributions next season at linebacker.

Romney Fuga, Eathyn Manumaleuna, Graham Rowley, and Travis Tuiloma are back on the defensive line while junior college transfer Marques Johnson, who has enrolled at BYU this month, should bolster the Cougars' depth at that position.

In the defensive backfield, Preston Hadley, Joe Sampson, Daniel Sorensen and Mike Hague return. Hadley and Sampson, who signed last February, made an immediate impact on the defense this season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Placekicker Justin Sorensen and punter Riley Stephenson will take care of kicking duties again. Both will look to be more consistent next season.

The Cougars have proven playmakers when it comes to the kick return game.

In 2011, Hoffman ended a 13-year drought for BYU as he became the first Cougar to return a kickoff for a touchdown since 1998 with a 93-yard return for a TD against Central Florida. Then, against TCU, Falslev returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown against TCU, marking the first time a Cougar had returned a punt for a TD since 2006.

email: jeffc@desnews.com

twitter: @AJeffreyCall

Season in review

LOOKING BACK

2011 results (10-3)

Sept. 1 — at Ole Miss, Won 14-13

Sept. 10 — at Texas, Lost 17-16

Sept. 17 — UTAH, Lost 54-10

Sept. 23 — UCF, Won 24-17

Sept. 30 — UTAH STATE, Won 27-24

Oct. 8 — SAN JOSE STATE, Won 29-16

Oct. 15 — at Oregon State, Won 38-28

Oct. 22 — IDAHO STATE, Won 56-3

Oct. 28 — vs. TCU, Lost 38-28

Nov. 12 — IDAHO, Won 42-7

Nov. 19 — NEW MEXICO STATE, Won 42-7

Dec. 3 — at Hawaii, Won 41-20

Dec. 30 — vs. Tulsa (Armed Forces Bowl), Won 24-21

Statistical leaders

All-purpose yards — Cody Hoffman (1,825 yards)

Fumble recoveries — Jameson Frazier (2)

Interceptions — Kyle Van Noy, Travis Uale (3)

Pass breakups — Preston Hadley, Corby Eason (14)

Passing — Riley Nelson (1,717 yards)

Receiving — Cody Hoffman (943 yards)

Rushing — JJ Di Luigi (584 yards)

Sacks — Kyle Van Noy (7)

Scoring — Justin Sorensen (93 points)

Tackles — Brandon Ogletree (76 tackles)

Tackles-for-loss — Kyle Van Noy (15)

LOOKING AHEAD

2012 schedule (Tentative)

Sept. 1 — WASHINGTON STATE

Sept. 8 — WEBER STATE

Sept. 15 — at Utah

Sept. 22 — at Boise State

Sept. 29 — HAWAII

Oct. 5 — UTAH STATE

Oct. 13 — OREGON STATE

Oct. 20 — at Notre Dame

Oct. 27 — TBA

Nov. 3 — TBA

Nov. 10 — TBA

Nov. 17 — TBA

Nov. 24 — TBA

Home game: Idaho

Road games: Georgia Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State

Top statistical returnees

All-purpose yards — Cody Hoffman (1,825 yards)

Fumble recoveries — Brandon Ogletree, Kyle Van Noy, Daniel Sorensen, Uona Kaveinga, Joe Sampson (1)

Interceptions — Kyle Van Noy (3)

Pass breakups — Preston Hadley (14)

Passing — Riley Nelson (1,717 yards)

Receiving — Cody Hoffman (943 yards)

Rushing — Michael Alisa (455 yards)

Sacks — Kyle Van Noy (7)

Scoring — Justin Sorensen (93 points)

Tackles — Brandon Ogletree (76 tackles)

Tackles-for-loss — Kyle Van Noy (15)Heady goes here

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