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Dick Harmon: Revamped receiver corps expected to push Anae's offense forward

Published: Sunday, Aug. 24 2014 11:10 a.m. MDT

Devon Blackmon poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy) Devon Blackmon poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy)

When Robert Anae returned in 2013 as offensive coordinator at BYU, he quickly deployed a fast-paced offense modeled after Arizona and Oregon.

But observers challenged the move with the question, “Does BYU have the personnel to run it?”

The answer was: kind of, but not really.

The standout feature of BYU football in 2014 that should move the Cougars closer toward Anae’s version of Rich Rodriquez’ offense is a deeper, faster receiver corps. It will be noticeably different. So will the routes they run and how they attack defenses.

They call themselves the Bomb Squad.

The Cougars have seen some good ones. Austin Collie and Cody Hoffman come to mind. Both were athletic, sure-handed and set all-time BYU receiving records in Provo. But Collie and Hoffman were singled out as one-trick targets, clearly favored by Max Hall and Riley Nelson during their careers.

BYU's Kurt Henderson runs for yardage following a reception during practice at the Smith Fieldhouse on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (Matt Gade, Deseret News) BYU's Kurt Henderson runs for yardage following a reception during practice at the Smith Fieldhouse on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (Matt Gade, Deseret News)

Beginning at UConn, BYU will rotate half a dozen pass catchers on the field, and all of them are capable of making Collie and Hoffman type plays for Taysom Hill. Defenses will be tested to track these targets and contain Hill’s running ability at the same time.

Their coach, Guy Holliday, has been in the SEC. He knows an upgrade when he sees one.

He believes BYU has done just that in the offseason.

Led by returning juniors Mitch Matthews and Kurt Henderson and senior Ross Apo, Holliday definitely upgraded with one-year transfers Jordan Leslie (UTEP), Stanford’s Keanu Nelson, junior college transfer Devon Blackmon and freshman Trey Dye. Anae will deploy inside receivers who are hybrid tight end types, guys like Terrenn Houke and Jake Ziolkowski with Leslie, Nelson and Dye.

Ross Apo (1) of the Brigham Young Cougars misses a pass against Darius Hillary (5) of the Wisconsin Badgers during NCAA football in Madison, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.  (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Ross Apo (1) of the Brigham Young Cougars misses a pass against Darius Hillary (5) of the Wisconsin Badgers during NCAA football in Madison, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Leslie is the most intriguing. He is a confident, athletic, sure-handed playmaker who stepped into fall camp and immediately showed this is not his first rodeo. His leadership, maturity, knowledge of the playbook and work ethic quickly stood out, just as Holliday predicted when he signed Leslie, an athlete he coached at UTEP.

Leslie has turned heads at BYU fall camp.

“No, I wasn’t being a prophet. A prophet is when you predict and haven’t seen. I knew firsthand what he is capable of doing, and it was easy to foretell what he’d be like here,” said Holliday.

Blackmon, who went to Twitter to announce he’d miss BYU’s first game due to disciplinary action, has made big plays and scored touchdowns in nearly every scrimmage this fall. Another playmaker is Trey Dye, son of former BYU punt returner James Dye. A second freshman, returned missionary Mitchell Juergens from Houston, is another weapon who has stood out in fall camp as has sophomore Colby Pearson from Blackfoot, Idaho.

Keanu Nelson poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy) Keanu Nelson poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy)

“Both Leslie and Nelson came here ready to play. They stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat; they were prepared and knew the plays,” said Matthews, a big 6-foot-6 target with a 37-inch vertical and Collie-like speed. Matthews has had injured shoulders the past two seasons, and in 2013 his season ended with a shoulder injury at Wisconsin.

Another 6-foot-6 target, Grossmont Community College transfer Nick Kurtz, who may have been the early story in fall camp before a stress fracture sent him to the sidelines for BYU’s early September games, is another significant upgrade for Hill and Anae.

“I just think overall, we feel really good about the whole corps,” said Holliday.

A telling sign is impressive timing and chemistry Hill is developing with receivers in the post Hoffman era.

Mitch Matthews poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy) Mitch Matthews poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy)

Holliday said Henderson has worked hard, Matthews is a playmaker, Leslie has hit the program in stride, Blackmon can track the deep ball, Dye has “tremendous” potential as a freshman and Jeurgens has carved out a niche for himself with Dye as multi-dimensional receivers.

With Kurtz going down, Holliday said he’s had to manage practices and move people around, which he says makes BYU’s receivers more versatile.

“Obviously losing Nick hurts. He was having an outstanding camp. I am more upset for him than I am for the guys. We’ll be OK. I’m not losing sleep, but let’s not lose another guy. Let’s keep it at just one so I can sleep at night.”

Holliday said from last year to now the Cougars are deeper and will stretch the field. “We could play four deep last year, and it took its toll. But now we have more playmakers, and it’s just a matter of figuring out how we can get guys the ball in space and get it down the field. It’s a good problem to have.”

Jordan Leslie poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy) Jordan Leslie poses for a photo at BYU in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy)

Holliday said he’ll demand his receivers be run blockers. “If you don’t block, you won’t play. Anybody can be a one-dimensional guy, but if you want to play at the next level, you have to be a blocker, and the more versatility you have the more in demand you will be.”

Will BYU turn into Arizona and Oregon in 2014? No. But the Cougar offense will be a few zip codes closer to executing like the Wildcats and Ducks in 2014 than a year ago.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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