The 2011 BYU spring practice has been very productive for BYU Cougar players and fans alike.
Besides getting a sneak peak at what our Cougars will look like come fall, we have also had several of our questions regarding the BYU depth chart answered in the past three weeks.
This article will focus on the offensive questions that have been answered. The questions that have been answered (at least in part) include:
1) Who will be the No. 2 QB?
2) How will time be split among the running backs, both returning starters and new challengers?
3) Who will be playing TE?
4) What will the receiver rotation look like?
5) Who will be the fifth starter on the offensive line?
Who Will Be the No. 2 QB?
We all knew Heaps was going to be the starter, but after that, the depth chart was uncertain.
Riley Nelson has experience and has shown that he can move the offense, but he doesn’t have an arm nearly as good as James Lark's.
Add into the equation that the new offense is more or less tailor-made to fit Jake Heaps and one is left with a bit of a quandary. Who is better fit for the offense, the wiley veteran or the talented sophomore with the bigger upside?
Spring practice has made it clear what the depth chart will look like come fall. Let’s look at the stats accumulated during the first three weeks of spring practice (or at least the practices that were open to the media and for which stats were recorded and published).
Name Completions Attempts Yards
Jake Heaps 39 59 462
Riley Nelson 22 32 245
James Lark 10 18 151
Jason Munns 7 11 35
The key stat here is pass attempts. Heaps has the most with 59. Nelson is No. 2 with 32 (54 percent of Heaps’ attempts). Lark is No. 3 with 18 (56 percent of Nelson’s attempts). Munns is No. 4 with 11 (61 percent of Lark’s attempts).
Each QB has a little over half the attempts of the QB ahead of him on the depth chart. This leaves us with a clear picture of who are No.s 1-4.
Aside from what the depth chart looks like, we have also learned a lot about the progression of BYU’s quarterbacks (and receivers).
Last year, both Heaps and Nelson were connecting on only about half of their passes. This year, that percentage has jumped up to about two-thirds (Heaps 66.1 percent, Nelson 68.8 percent).
Everybody saw Heaps get better over the course of the season last year, but it is good to know that Riley Nelson—the Cougars' backup QB—has also stepped up his passing game.
How Will Time Be Split among the Running Backs, Both Returning Starters and New Challengers?
The Returning Starters
There weren’t many question marks around the three returning starting running backs. Diluigi, Quezada and Kariya proved their worth on the field last year.
The only question would be, “Is one of the three going to take a more dominant role in the rotation?"
As of right now, the answer is no. That may change once we get into the season, but so far, it appears that the RB position will still be run by a committee that shares the carries in roughly equal allotments.
The numbers for the running backs aren’t reported as faithfully as the stats of the QBs and are thus suspect.
According to the numbers available, Diluigi has at least 27 carries, Quezada has at least 18 and Kariya has at least 11. I do not think that this is an accurate representation of how the load will be distributed come fall (or even how it has been distributed during spring practice).
I think a better way would be to look at the distribution of carries over the last five games of the 2010 season.
During that stretch, Diluigi had 66 carries (36 percent of the trio’s carries), Quezada had 62 carries (34 percent) and Kariya had 54 carries (30 percent). We can expect to see a fairly similar distribution this year.
While the overall distribution will probably roughly resemble the numbers stated above, the amount of carries the individual running backs get in each game will vary greatly depending on the situation and on opposing defenses.
Let’s look at the last five games from last year.
Against Utah and CSU, Brian Kariya led all RBs in carries. In the other three games, he was third. Against UTEP and New Mexico, Diluigi got the most carries; he had the least of the three against Utah.
On a side note, one thing that impressed me this spring has been the number of long runs by BYU backs this spring.
At times this spring, the Cougar offense has struggled to move the ball on the ground (having three starting linemen out with injury doesn’t help), but BYU RBs have been springing for longer runs with surprising frequency.
Fifteen percent of Diluigi’s recorded rushes have gone for at least 15 yards. Brian Kariya, a supposed short-yardage back, has several 20-plus yard runs this spring. Quezada has had a couple and Drew Philips broke one that would have gone for six.
This could be an exciting change from last year's run game which, while effective, was never much of a threat when it came to breaking off long runs.
Last year, Diluigi had only three runs that went for over 20 yards. Brian Kariya had zero 20-plus yard rushes and Quezada had only one.
I think the biggest surprise here is David Foote. Last Friday on the first series of the scrimmage, Joshua Quezada went down with a sprained ankle.
Replacing Quezada in the running back rotation was not Drew Philips—which is who I would have expected—but David Foote, who had six carries (including a 13-yard rush) and four receptions for 28 yards.
Does this mean that Drew is now behind Foote on the depth chart? It appears to be so. I haven’t heard about Philips being injured or sitting out of practice.
This is one development I’ll be watching closely throughout the remainder of spring and into fall practice.
Who Will Be Playing TE?
Devin Mahina and Austin Holt. From what we’ve seen in spring practice, the way these two will share playing time will be similar to the way Johnny Harline and Daniel Coats split time.
Mahina will be the starter and the target of the majority of passes thrown to tight ends.
Austin Holt is the better blocker and will spend much of his playing time in that capacity, but he is also a more-than-capable receiving TE who will probably pick up his share of yards during the season.
One interesting point I’ve noticed is that the TEs, and Mahina in particular, have been targeted for long downfield passes.
Mahina has 116 yard and two TDs on seven receptions. That is 16.6 yards per catch. Several of those receptions have been deep balls, including a 30-yard reception in which Mahina laid out in a diving catch on a seam route.
I think we could see this type of thing fairly often given the mismatches that will be created because of Mahina’s athleticism. Having three deep threats line up at receiver doesn’t hurt Mahina’s cause either.
What Will the Receiver Rotation Look Like?
Quiz time. What BYU receiver has had the most 25-plus yard receptions during spring practice?
I’ll give you a hint: He has twice as many big receptions as any other receiver.
If you guessed Ross Apo…you are wrong. The same goes if you guessed McKay Jacobson, Cody Hoffman or anyone else not named JD Falslev.
During the first three weeks of practice (not counting Wednesdays or Thursdays, which are closed to the media), JD has had catches for 27, 28, 35 and 50 yards during scrimmage time.
Falslev’s emergence makes things interesting at the receiver position. At the beginning of spring practice, it was pretty clear that the starting receivers were Apo, Hoffman and Jacobson.
Falslevs play in spring practice has to put him in the same category as these three. I expect these four will be sharing the majority of the plays this season at receiver.
As of right now, Hoffman and Apo would probably start out wide with Jacobsen in the slot, but I expect to see Falslev in at the slot position quite frequently during games.
Jacobson is too good a receiver to only be on the field for only half of the offensive plays. He will therefore most likely spend time as wideout as well.
While the other receivers have potential and will probably contribute, there appears to be a clear distinction between the top four and everybody else. Only two other receivers have even been mentioned in spring practice reports.
Both Matt Marshal and Rhen Brown have two catches apiece. One name that has been conspicuously absent during spring practice is that of Drew Philips.
Many fans, including myself, thought that by virtue of his speed and athletic ability, he would see at least moderate playing time at RB and/or slot receiver. So far I have yet to hear about Philips even lining up in the slot.
Although with the emergence of Falslev, it probably shouldn’t be too surprising considering the depth the Cougars now have at the position.
Who Will Be the Fifth Starter on the Offensive Line?
As of yet, there is no clear fifth starter, but the field has been more or less narrowed down to three different linemen. Two are guards and one is a center.
While the starter that BYU lost to graduation played guard, the fifth starter could be either center or guard.
Last year, Terrance Brown was the starting center, but in 2009, he started at guard and he can play both positions equally well.
Coach Webber will be looking to put the five best offensive linemen on the field, and if that means that Brown will have to switch back to guard, then so be it.
Marco Thorson: 6’3", 327 lbs., OG
He has seen all of his reps with the first string offense this spring. He is a senior who has played in 17 games over the past two years as a backup. He has had a good spring and as a result, is one of the frontrunners of the starting position.
Houston Reynolds: 6’2", 308 lbs., C
Houston started spring practice as the No. 2 center behind Blair Tushaus, but as spring has progressed, he has spent more and more time with the ones and now (for the moment at least) is the starting center in place of the recovering Terrance Brown.
Walter Kahaiali’i: 6’3", 334 lbs., OG
Walter is one of those recovering from injury, which somewhat damages his chances of getting that fifth spot. However, he is still a strong candidate and was considered by some to be the frontrunner before his injury. Walter is a junior who played in 19 games over the past two seasons.
This competition is one that won’t be completely decided before fall camp. All three would be valuable additions to the Cougar offensive line. We will just have to wait to see which one gets the coveted fifth spot.
While probably not in the running for the starting position, there have been several other linemen who have had good springs and will likely push for time as backups this year and starters in years to come.
The two that have stood out to me the most are Ryker Matthews and Blair Tushaus.
As mentioned earlier, Tushaus has been battling Houston Reynolds for that starting center spot and appears to have a good future on the offensive line at either the guard or center spot.
Ryker Matthews might have been in the mix for the starting spot if he didn’t play tackle. The 6’6", 285-lb. true freshman has gotten all of the first-team reps at the all-important left tackle position in the place of Matt Reynolds.
The first three weeks of spring practice have:
1) Confirmed things many fans suspected, like the QB and TE depth charts.
2) Brought up a few surprises, like David Foote emerging as the No. 1 backup RB and JD Falslev joining Apo, Jacobsen and Hoffman in the upper tier of Cougar receivers.
3) Left us still wondering who would be the fifth starter on the offensive line.
4) Increased my impatience for fall to get here.