BYU may have had one of its most successful football recruiting efforts ever, but you wouldn't know it from talking to Coach LaVell Edwards.
The Cougars came away with three prospects rated by various publications as among the best players in the West, marking probably the first time BYU has signed so many players regarded so highly. They also signed the son of a former NFL star.Asked to evaluate BYU's recruiting endeavors, however, Edwards would only say, "It's gone well. I feel good about the players we got."
Edwards went on to say that he didn't put much stock in attempts to put labels like "blue chip" on athletes coming out of high school.
"You'll see guys on those lists that you know can't play, and other guys that aren't on the lists who can play," he said.
Anyway, the fact is BYU got some offensive players with very impressive credentials and some help for a beleaguered defensive unit.
Quarterback John Walsh announced in December that he would join the Cougars, and he made it official Wednesday. Walsh, a big (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), strong-armed passer from Carson High in Los Angeles, led his team to the city championship while throwing 44 touchdown passes and a state-record 3,690 yards. He was widely considered the top quarterback prospect in the West.
Late Wednesday the Cougars added top prospects Mark Atuaia and Itula Mili, both of whom played for Kahuku High on Oahu. And then Thursday morning, the Cougs announced the signing of running back Jamal Willis of Bonanza High in Las Vegas and lineman Matt Cox of Walpole High in Massachussetts. Willis, like Atuaia and Mili is ranked among the Top 100 players in the West.
Atuaia, a 5-10, 185-pound running back, created quite a stir in Hawaii this past season as he pursued the state rushing record set by Mosi Tatupu - a record many thought would never be broken. Atuaia ended up gaining more than 2,000 yards in just nine games, breaking Tatupu's record and getting the attention of a lot of recruiters. And unlike a lot of high school running backs who never get a chance to catch the ball, Atuaia was used as a receiver out of the backfield, too.
Mili began last season expected to be the top high school recruit in the Islands, according to sportswriter Pat Bigold of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. An ankle sprain slowed him for a few games, but he ended up scoring nine touchdowns on just 13 receptions, despite constant double coverage. Mili was also the state high-jump champ.
Willis, 6-2, 200, was the Nevada offensive player of the year after rushing for 1,188 yards and 17 TDs in nine games. One prep service called him, "A big back with all the tools. He hits the hole quickly and is tough to bring down." He was also recruited by Colorado, Nebraska and Arizona.
Other offensive recruits for the Cougars were fullback Dustin Johnson, 6-3, 210, from Round Valley High in Eagar, Ariz.; running back Daily Johnson, 5-11, 185, from state 5A champion Marshall High in Marshall, Texas; tight end Terence Saluone, 6-3, 200, from Provo High; and wide receiver Mike Johnston, 5-10, 175, from South San Francisco High in California. Johnston, an all-CIF player as a junior and senior, also plays shortstop and may be a major-league baseball draft pick.
The Cougars, figuring they were deep on the offensive line despite the loss of four starters to graduation, drafted two offensive lineman, 6-5, 240-pound Nathan Howard from Centerville High in Clifton, Va., and Cox, 6-6, 250. Cox was also recruited by Michigan, Michigan State, Syracuse and Boston College. Former Boston College coach Jack Bicknell, after he was fired, tipped off Edwards about Cox, who is a Mormon, and Edwards visited Cox while back in New York for the Heisman Trophy Award dinner.
It hasn't been determined yet whether another line recruit, 6-4, 245-pound Shane Werley from Rangeview High in Aurora, Colo., will play defense or offense.
The Cougar coaching staff said all along that defense would be a priority for this draft, especially in efforts aimed at junior college players. The defensive secondary, which performed erratically last season and then lost two players to graduation, was the area of most concern, and BYU signed four defensive backs.
Two junior-college players who may be expected to make immediate contributions are 5-foot-11, 185-pound Courtney Overstreet and 6-foot, 190-pound Paul Pitts, both from Pasadena City College in California. The pair of juniors was also recruited by Oregon, Arizona, San Diego State and Cal.
The other two defensive backs were 6-3, 195-pound Karlos Rhodes of Fort Walton Beach, Fla., a "sleeper" prospect who graduated in 1989 and was heavily recruited before he suffered a season-ending knee injury; and Hassan-Kareem McCullough, a 5-10, 175-pounder from Muir High in Pasadena, Calif. McCullough is the son of the late Earl McCullough, who played wide receiver for USC and was a teammate of O.J. Simpson and later played for the Detroit Lions.
It was speculated that BYU might scour the junior colleges for some defensive-line help, considering that the top five players graduated but the coaching staff likes the players it already has waiting in the wings, according to one BYU staffer.
The Cougars did sign a couple of linebackers, 6-4, 210-pound Royal Chamberlain from Mountain View High in Orem and 6-3, 225-pound Matt Sailors from Rancho Buena Vista High in Vista, Calif. Sailors had 27 sacks his senior season, earning him All-CIF southern section defensive player of the year honors.