As spring practices commence around the nation, I’ll be looking at each of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in the 2012 season and addressing some key questions and some potential breakout players.
In this edition, we’ll look at Bronco Mendenhall and the BYU Cougars, who return to the Irish’s regular season schedule this season for the first time since 2005. They take the field for the first time on March 5, with their spring game coming on March 30.
On Monday, we’ll look at USC as they prepare to start practice on March 6.
Date: Oct. 20
Location: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, IN)
Last Meeting: Notre Dame 49, BYU 23 (2005)
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: Notre Dame 49, BYU 23 (2005)
Current Streak: Notre Dame: 1
Bowl: Armed Forces Bowl (defeated Tulsa, 24-21)
Leading Passer: Riley Nelson (Jr.): 116-for-202, 1,717 yards, 19 TD, 7 INT
Leading Rusher: JJ Di Luigi (Sr.): 116 rushes, 584 yards, 3 TD
Leading Receiver: Cody Hoffman (So.): 61 catches, 943 yards, 10 TD
Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson engaged in a two-year battle for the starting quarterback job with the Cougars. Heaps appeared to have the upper hand heading into 2011, leading BYU to a strong finish and a bowl victory in 2010 after an injury sidelined Nelson.
Heaps started the first five games last season, but the southpaw Nelson took over for seven of the final eight games. Nelson is a threat as a runner, adding more versatility to the offense. Heaps transferred to Kansas after the season, where he’ll play for former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis in 2013.
Nelson struggled mightily against TCU in the Cougars’ only loss in their final 10 games, hitting only 15 of his 29 passes with two interceptions. He did not play against Texas and threw only six passes against Utah, so he is relatively green against elite competition.
Leading rusher JJ Di Luigi departs, but the Cougars played a number of running backs last year and are still in good shape at the position. Converted linebacker Michael Alisa had 455 yards and three touchdowns last year after becoming a regular contributor at midseason.
Alisa doesn’t have ideal speed, but has a physical style of running. After only five receptions last year, he must improve his pass-catching ability to be an every-down running back.
Joshua Quezada will be the primary backup to Alisa and is the more natural running back. An injury limited him for much of the 2011 season. Fullback Iona Pritchard missed last season, but is back to full speed and should be an effective blocker, runner and occasional pass-catcher.
Sophomore Cody Hoffman finished the 2011 season on a high note, scoring all three BYU touchdowns in the Cougars’ Armed Forces Bowl victory. After only 20 catches in the first two games, he had five 100-yard games in the final 11. He should be a 1,000-yard receiver in 2012 after falling 57 yards short last season.
Like Hoffman, rising sophomore Ross Apo is a tall, reliable receiver. He had an impressive debut last season with 453 yards as a freshman and two games with multiple touchdowns.
J.D. Falslev, a slippery slot receiver, and returning missionary Jordan Smith add depth for the Cougars. BYU rarely utilizes tight ends in the passing game. Austin Holt’s 11 catches led the tight ends a year ago.
The Cougars suffer a massive loss on the left side of the line with the departure of tackle Matt Reynolds, who should be a second-day NFL draft selection. Redshirt freshman Ryker Matthews played in the U.S. Army-American Bowl in 2011, but is coming off of a serious foot injury last season.
BYU also loses the anchor of its line, two-year starting center Terrance Brown. Both guards return, although left guard Houston Reynolds will miss the spring with a torn labrum. Right tackle Braden Brown will be back for his third season as a starter.
The Cougars allowed only 17 sacks last year, good for 26th in the FBS. The loss of Matt Reynolds hurts, but having three starters back means this unit could match last year’s production. This program always has quality offensive linemen, and 2012 should be no different.
BYU had a top-20 run defense last year, but played a fairly soft schedule in its first year as an independent, with only two bowl teams in the final nine games. The Cougars play a 3-4 alignment, which relies heavily on an effective nose tackle.
Romney Fuga was the projected starter at nose tackle heading into last fall, but seized control of the position and had a fantastic junior season. He’ll be back in the middle. The Cougars also get Russell Tialavea back from a mission trip, but he must increase his strength after missing the past two seasons.
BYU is in good shape at one defensive end, with rising senior Eathyn Manumaleuna returning, but the other end position is a major question mark. A freshman or a missionary returnee will likely win the job, so don’t expect the position to gain much clarity during the spring.
Like Notre Dame, BYU plays the majority of defensive snaps with four linebackers on the field. Also like Notre Dame, the inside positions are the Cougars’ strength, with starters Uona Kavienga and Brandon Ogletree both returning.
Ogletree led the team in tackles with 76 a year ago, while Kavienga had four forced fumbles. Both are under six feet tall, but like Jamoris Slaughter does for the Irish, play bigger than they actually are.
On the outside, Kyle Van Noy turned in 68 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks a year ago. He’ll return on the weak side and is a threat to get in the backfield on every play. Converted inside linebacker Spencer Hadley is the likely starter on the strong side.
The Cougars return only two starters in the secondary, with free safety the primary concern heading into the spring. The open spot will likely be filled by a position switch, with back-up strong safety Joe Sampson a probably candidate.
BYU has specific cornerback positions, with Preston Hadley returning as the boundary (short field) corner. The field corner starter last season, Corby Eason, must be replaced, but the Cougars have rising sophomore Jordan Johnson waiting in the wings. He’s relatively green, but is the most talented of the defensive backs.
Daniel Sorenson, the playmaker of the unit, returns at strong safety. He’s better moving forward than he is in pass coverage, but the converted linebacker should be a more complete safety in 2012.
Justin Sorensen connected on all 48 of his extra point attempts last year in his first season back from a mission, but missed 10 field goals, including four from inside 40 yards. He’ll return in 2012, and at 6’2”, 230 pounds, don’t discount him making a tackle on kickoffs.
The Cougars also return punter Riley Stephenson for his fourth season as the starter. He averaged just over 42 yards per kick last season, a slight improvement from 2010.
Hoffman and Falslev will again be the primary return men. Both had return touchdowns last season. Falslev’s 10 yards per punt return average was good for 27th in the FBS in 2011.
The 2012 schedule is tougher than last year’s slate, with Boise State and Georgia Tech rolling on in addition to the Irish. The Cougars will get to tackle this challenging schedule with an experienced team.
There’s no more quarterback competition with the departure of Heaps, so the major question marks for the spring on offense are finding replacements for Di Luigi and Matt Reynolds.
Defensively, BYU isn’t going to wow you with playmakers, but they bring back seven starters and have only two positions with major concerns. Outside of a curious blowout loss at home to Utah in the Holy War, this team was very consistent from week to week last season. Expect much of the same in 2012.