Normally, BYU's best and most important returning player is the quarterback. After all, the Cougar quarterback factory has produced such outstanding players as Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer.
But this year, linebacker Kyle Van Noy owns the spotlight.
Van Noy's stat sheet practically screams for national attention. He tallied 13 sacks, 22 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and two blocked kicks last season.
To put that in perspective, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney also had 13 sacks as well as 23.5 tackles for loss and he was a consensus All-American defensive end.
Van Noy also wowed the nation as he scored two touchdowns in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl, one on a forced fumble and recovery in the end zone and the other on an interception return.
Not many linebackers can say they single-handedly scored more points than either offense in a bowl game.
So, it's not really a surprise to see Van Noy make Phil Steele's First Team All-American list for 2013.
Some have gone so far to say Van Noy is a Heisman contender, including CBSSports.com senior college football columnist Dennis Dodd. Dodd placed Van Noy along side Clowney and Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley as potential candidates to become the first "purely" defensive player to win the Heisman. Dodd even called Van Noy "this year's Manti Te'o."
High praise indeed as Te'o was a Heisman finalist last season.
Could Van Noy become the second Cougar in history to win the Heisman?
BYU would probably have to run the table as Te'o and the Fighting Irish did during the regular season. That's no small feat considering that Texas, Notre Dame and Wisconsin are on the schedule this season.
Anything is possible, but BYU fans better not hold their breath. However, a trip to New York as a finalist isn't that far-fetched if the Cougars register double-digit wins.
Van Noy has an excellent chance of becoming BYU's first consensus All-American since tight end Dennis Pitta in 2008. But no matter what honors Van Noy wins or doesn't win, he'll surely wreak havoc on opposing teams this season.
Van Noy isn't the only quality linebacker returning in 2013, however.
Spencer Hadley will be Van Noy's partner at outside linebacker and, like Van Noy, is a seasoned senior. Hadley may not have the national acclaim Van Noy enjoys, but opposing offenses won't be able to simply run away from Van Noy and expect it to work. Hadley had 55 tackles (including nine for losses) 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
That's not the kind of player to ignore.
The Cougars will miss former inside linebackers Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga. Ogletree led the team in tackles with 102 and made three interceptions while Kaveinga had 4.5 tackles for loss and an interception.
Fortunately, head coach Bronco Mendenhall has considerable depth available at linebacker.
Tyler Beck and Oregon State transfer Uani 'Unga top BYU's post-spring depth chart at middle linebacker. 'Unga had 28 tackles (three for loss), one sack and an interception as a backup last season, and those numbers should rise as he becomes a starter.
Beck, however, played in only four games last season and recorded just one tackle. Beck has struggled with injuries, but his work at spring camp was enough for him to beat out sophomore Manoa Pikula.
These four linebackers will be the heart and soul of the Cougar defense, and the team's difficult schedule will offer a major test for them. BYU faces Georgia Tech and Wisconsin, both of which finished in the Top 15 in rushing offense last season. Texas, Utah, Notre Dame and even Utah State will also test these linebackers' abilities.
BYU was No. 2 in rushing defense and No. 3 in total defense nationally last season and with Van Noy and company, fans might see similar results this year.
All in all, Cougar fans have plenty to look forward to from the linebackers.
Lafe Peavler is a National College Football Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow me on Twitter @MasterPeavler
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