BYU football coach LaVell Edwards knows that his team needs help up front if it is to win a third straight WAC title next fall.
The Cougars lose 14 starters to graduation, four on the offensive line."This will be like it was two years ago, starting over with a new offensive line," Edwards said.
BYU loses all three defensive line starters, as well as two backups who saw as much playing time as the starters.
Quarterback Ty Detmer will not have tight end Chris Smith and wide receivers Andy Boyce and Brent Nyberg to throw to next season, and three of BYU's top four running backs will be gone.
The other area of concern is the defensive secondary, which loses Brian Mitchell and Norm Dixon.
Defensive coordinator Dick Felt said BYU will take steps to bolster the defense in general. "Our priority in recruiting this year is on the defensive side of the ball," Felt said. "We're looking for a couple of junior college players, for one thing."
Here's an early unit-by-unit look at BYU's prospects for next fall:
Quarterback: Detmer will be back, with both shoulders healed. At least that's what the Heisman Trophy winner says. Detmer has even told his coaches he will be ready for spring practice, but the coaches say it won't matter if he's there or not. "We know what he is capable of," said offensive coordinator Roger French.
The job of backing up Detmer, meanwhile, could be hotly contested. Joe Evans, last season's No. 2, will return, and redshirt Garth Finnegan, the transfer from Clemson, is reportedly thought highly of by coaches. Tom Young, Steve and Mike's little brother, is back from his mission, and Ryan Hancock and Brock Spencer, last year's top freshman recruits, may or may not go on missions themselves. Then there's John Walsh, the highly recruited freshman from Carson High in Los Angeles, but he's likely to redshirt.
Running back: Peter Tuipulotu will start again, probably backed up by Scott Charlton. The big question is who will replace Matt Bellini in the important pass-catching halfback position. Eric Drage, a converted wide receiver, saw spot duty there when Bellini was hurt, and Eric Mortensen is good when healthy, though he's been more of a runner than receiver. Lakei Heimuli's little brother, Hema, is back from a mission but doesn't figure into plans for next season, Edwards said.
Tight end: Matt Zundel will be a senior and backed up Smith, and the usual BYU formula is for the backup to step into the departing starter's position. Coaches think highly, however, of Byron Rex, a junior with speed, so an exception in this case wouldn't be a surprise.
Wide receiver: Micah Matsuzaki started the season shakily but finished strong (26 catches), and Nati Valdez saw lots of action but wasn't thrown at much. Speedsters Bryce Doman and Tyler Anderson will be back from missions in May and will miss spring practice, but both saw significant playing time as freshmen and will probably play this fall.
Offensive line: Junior guard Bryan May is the only returnee, but line coach French is enthusiastic about this unit's potential. "We'll be bigger and better," he boldly predicted. "Well, maybe not bigger, but we'll be better." All five backup offensive linemen from last season will return - four will be seniors, one a junior. And back from missions are Eli Herring and Mike Empey, two players that French said should have started as freshmen. "I'd like to go out and start practice right now, because I'm so excited about this offense," French said.
Defensive line: Only tackle Brad Hunter returns from the top six, and he saw little playing time while backing up Rich Kaufusi. Others who may figure in at tackle are junior Scott Moberly and senior Chris Conners. Top candidate at nose guard is 6-2, 265-pound junior Lenny Gomes. As it stands now, this is not a deep group.
Linebacker: Inside starters Rocky Biegel and Shad Hansen are back, as is outside backer Scott Giles, who played well when Jared Leavitt suffered a neck injury against Oregon. Leavitt had surgery recently to stabilize a vertebra, and plans to play next season. If he returns at full strength, this starting unit will be solid. If not, he likely will be replaced by junior Kevin Nicoll.
Secondary: Lots of guys who played will be back, but depth is a problem, Felt says. This unit performed well when everybody was healthy, but when injuries forced the backups into starting positions, lack of depth hurt. Starting cornerback Tony Crutchfield will be back, but he was bothered all year by tendinitis. Capable Ervin Lee will probably start at the other corner. Derwin Gray and Josh Arnold each spent half the season as starters at safety, and will probably both start now. In the pass-happy WAC, though, teams need to be about six deep in the secondary, and BYU showed it wasn't that deep against Hawaii and Texas A&M.
Punter-placekicker: Earl Kauffman is back. Enough said.
BYU's departing seniors
Neal Fort offensive line
Bob Stephens offensive line
Mike Keim offensive line
Jim Balmforth offensive line
Chris Smith tight end
Andy Boyce wide receiver
Brent Nyberg wide receiver
Matt Bellini halfback
Stacey Corley halfback
Mike Salido fullback
Rich Kaufusi defensive line
Pete Harston defensive line
Mark Smith defensive line
Eddie Green defensive line
Rick Wilson defensive line
Alema Fitisemanu linebacker
Norm Dixon safety
Brian Mitchell cornerback