"The intensity is almost unmanageable right now."
That is a direct quote from BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall in an interview with KSL’s Greg Wrubell. "We’ll start preparing for Ole Miss earlier than normal, just because of how the team’s doing so far," he said.
The word from camp is possibly more upbeat and optimistic than it has ever been under Mendenhall’s tenure.
Coaching staff and players have said the team unity is strong, and they are prepared to make bold strides as they pioneer through the first year as an Independent. Mendenhall should be able to manage the intensity he mentioned and lead his team to an outstanding year.
Here are a few things to watch for this season and some critical notes from camp that every BYU fan should know before the team travels to Ole Miss on Sept. 3:
To an enthusiastic response from fans, offensive coordinator Robert Anae got booted from Provo this winter. He was largely criticized for his predictable play-calling and is even rumored to have butted heads with rising star QB Jake Heaps.
Here he comes to save the day! Last season’s QB coach and pal to Heaps, Brandon Doman has taken the reins.
Doman knows how to win at Brigham Young. He played QB in 2000 and sent the legend LaVell Edwards to retirement in winning style versus rival Utah: Touchdown, Brandon Doman, with 23 seconds remaining on the clock.
"There’s not a guy out here that wouldn’t run through a brick wall for either him or coach Mendenhall," Heaps said last spring. "We’re going to have an offense that is so diverse and so different, it will always constantly be making the defense think."
Doman added, "Sometimes, we might pull something out of our hat, or we might draw something up in the dirt on the sidelines."
Ben Cahoon, the all-time leader for receptions in the Canadian Football League, retired from playing football in January to coach wide receivers at BYU.
Run your routes strong, fellas; coach Cahoon can probably run them better than you.
The word from camp is that the receiving corps' performance has improved leaps in comparison to last year.
Brigham Young also recruited Navy slotbacks coach Joe DuPaix to join the staff as the RB coach.
Most Cohesive Unit: The Backfield
There is a lot of hype on the offensive end of the ball. It was difficult to choose one unit that stood out from the others, as the entire offensive squad has come together on a high performance level this year.
Heaps has been stunning at camp. He is confident and enthusiastic about his starring role in the Doman show.
RBs JJ Di Luigi, Brian Kariya and Joshua Quezada combined for 1,959 yards on the ground last season; Di Luigi added 443 receiving yards.
All three players seem to have conditioned well in the offseason and have even improved their games from last year. Much like last season, Di Luigi has been one of Heaps’ favorite targets this camp.
Junior fullback Zed Mendenhall will also be a contributor in the backfield. He started six games last season.
Player Under Pressure
With heaps of hype comes heaps of responsibility.
The sophomore QB has been named by some sportswriters as a candidate for the Heisman Trophy this season (in the second group behind the favorites—the ones who jump out and surprise you).
How does that anvil on your shoulders feel, Jake?
Expectations could be too high for this bullet-ball passer who came to Quarterback University rated the No.1 national prospect by Rivals.com and Scout.com; time will tell.
Heaps completed 219-of-384 passes for 2,316 yards after taking over the starting position in the fourth game against Nevada last season. Finally gelling in the New Mexico Bowl, Heaps completed 25-of-34 passes for 264 yards, four TDs and one INT in a rout of UTEP.
There is a definite buzz swarming around this youngster in camp. Through a four-day stretch, Heaps completed 21-of-25 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns, throwing eye-popping bullets downfield for 60 and 70 yards—impressive indeed.
On a personal side note, Heaps was married June 25 in the Mormon Church’s Seattle Washington Temple to Brooke Shaw, whom he met last summer in Provo. Congratulations, buddy.
Players on the Rise
Joshua Quezada: In his freshman campaign, Quezada averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Impressive in camp and with an entire season under his belt, "Juice" will be a factor this season.
Mendenhall has said he is one of the strongest leaders in building team unity and trust on the offensive side of the ball.
Rhen Brown: While Brown will not be a starter, he will definitely be rewarded for an impressive camp, rotating in at WR.
A junior, Brown is only 5'10" and 178 lbs, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for with speed. His brother, Terence Brown, plays center, weighing in at 318 pounds (explain that one, genetics).
Coach Cahoon is high on this player, saying, "He runs effortlessly, he runs precise routes, he catches the ball well, and he takes it seriously… It’s been great to see his progress so far this fall because he can help us."
Big Impact Newcomers
Iona Pritchard: Here comes the bad news from camp.
Pritchard is out for the season, as he underwent surgery a week ago to repair an ankle dislocation suffered in camp.
Pritchard had a standout year as a true freshman in 2008 and returned this year after spending two years in the South Pacific on a LDS mission. Returned missionaries at BYU can often suffer from a condition of "missionary legs," coming home unconditioned and out of shape.
He had impressed fellow teammates and coaches with his conditioning and performance in camp. BYU fans will have to wait another year to see just what he is capable of.
Ryker Mathews: This 6'6", 285-lbs true freshman will rotate in as left guard and left tackle. One of the top offensive line prospects in the country, Mathews was also recruited by Notre Dame, Oregon, Stanford and Utah.
The coaching staff seriously considered redshirting Mathews, but he has been too strong in camp to not play this year.
Ross Apo: The much-hyped wide receiver had a finger injury last season that kept him from playing a down and granted him a medical redshirt.
At 6'3" and 200 lbs, Apo has proven himself in camp as a go-to guy for Heaps’ deep ball.
Key Position Battle
The tight ends have been battling in an interesting race.
All sophomores, Austin Holt (6'5", 247 lbs), Marcus Mathews (6'4", 208 lbs), Richard Wilson (6'2", 232 lbs) and Devin Mahina (6'6", 245 lbs) continue to vie for the starting positions.
Each one of these guys saw playing time last year. Holt has separated himself from the pack as a definite starter, though. He started two games in 2010, the least of all four players.
Mahina started five games last year, but may be at the bottom of this pack now that the competition has settled in camp.
Jaime Hill was fired midseason last year after BYU’s loss to Utah State. The unit ranked last in the country in rushing yards allowed.
The controversial call by Bronco Mendenhall proved to be a winner. He took over his defense, and it ended up ranked No. 45 in rushing yards allowed (quite a jump) and No. 24 in total defense.
Mendenhall is familiar with running camp as a defensive coordinator. He has eight years of experience leading defenses between his time spent at New Mexico, Oregon State and Snow College.
A hands-on sort of guy, coaching the defense in 2011 has built camaraderie between coach and players that could be invaluable to their performance.
2006 All-MWC linebacker Kelly Poppinga returned to BYU in 2009 as a graduate intern after spending a year in the NFL. He has been promoted to outside linebackers coach, is popular with the players and has already made some dents in Brigham Young’s recruiting progress.
Most Cohesive Unit: Linebackers
I will get to middle linebacker Uona Kaveinga later, not to worry.
Jordan Pendleton is hungry to get the 2011 ball rolling. He may be a little too hungry, though.
Last week, Pendleton and TE Austin Holt, a former high school teammate, exchanged a series of shoves.
Now, now, boys.
In 2009, Pendleton had 51 total tackles and six tackles for loss. In October last season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury he had surgically repaired this offseason.
Brandon Oggletree also recorded 51 tackles last season. He missed a week of camp with a groin injury, but can be counted on to be a presence.
Sophomore Kyle Van Noy gained 12 pounds during the offseason. Turning heads in camp, he has likely played his way into a starting position after starting two games last year.
Jameson Frazier, Austen Jorgensen and Ezekial Ansah have also stepped up. This group of dependable backups possibly hands the Cougars the strongest group of linebackers the school has seen.
Player Under Pressure
Uona Kaveinga met high expectations in camp with pass breakups and several tackles for loss.
He played his freshman and sophomore years at USC, appearing mostly on special teams in 16 games before making the decision to transfer to Brigham Young.
NCAA transfer rules required a redshirt season from him in 2010, so the anticipation to see him play his first down as a Cougar has been restless for excited fans. Coach Mendenhall is thrilled to see the day finally approaching.
In 2008, Kaveinga committed to BYU a few weeks before signing day, then handed the head coach one of his worst recruiting disappointments ever when he grabbed for the Trojan cap.
Mendenhall warns not to expect miracles.
"He’s not going to come out and make every play. He’s going to get blocked sometimes. But we have high expectations and we feel like he is going to be a great asset to our defense."
Players on the Rise
Romney Fuga: The junior nose tackle (6'2", 321 lbs) is on the rise.
He was last seen in a BYU uniform being carted off the field at LaVell Edwards Stadium when Nevada defender John Bender illegally clipped his knee (no penalty was called).
The WAC review of the play deemed the block legal, but even Nevada coach Chris Ault said otherwise in comments after the game.
Surgery to Fuga's ACL and LCL was successful, as was his petition to the NCAA for a medical waiver. He saw action in practice for the first time Aug. 9 and looks good.
Mike Hague: The now-converted safety (5'10", 190 lbs) had an eventful winter and spring.
Hague spent six months on crutches, lost 45 pounds on a strict diet and switched positions from fullback to safety. The transition has gone smoothly, and he is in an intense battle to start at the position.
Hague performed well his freshman year, highlighted by an 87-yard touchdown run against UNLV. He then left school for a two-year mission to Knoxville, Tenn., and returned to Provo out of shape.
He had a disappointing sophomore year that ended with a severe ankle injury in November.
Daniel Sorenson: This sophomore (6’2’’, 206 lbs) saw action in 12 games as a backup last year. Sorenson recorded 17 tackles last season and has earned a starting position as defensive back in some tight competition.
Big Impact Newcomer
The game of football is new to junior Ezekial "Ziggy" Ansah. He’s still learning.
From Accra, Ghana, Ansah enrolled at Brigham Young in 2008 and joined the track team as a freshman. Playing football for the first time as a sophomore, he played mostly on special teams in six games last year.
Ziggy has an NFL body (6'6", 265 lbs and a 91-inch wingspan). Although football is new to the player, he has been a sack monster in camp. Ansah would be a starting linebacker if the Cougars were not already stacked at the position, and coaches have said he will get playing time in pass-rush situations.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson from North Andover, Mass., was a hot recruit a year ago. With a strong performance in practices, he will relieve senior starter Corby Eason in a rotation at corner.
Snow College JUCO transfer Preston Hadley has won the starting position at the other corner spot. He has battled through a competitive pack of newcomers to earn the role.
San Mateo JUCO transfer Joe Sampson (6'0", 205 lbs) will also get playing time this season. After receiving offers to play at Oregon, Oregon State and Utah, he committed to BYU.
Sampson was frustrated at missing spring practices to compete with Hadley for a starting position, but he has impressed coaches this August.
Key Position Battle
Senior Travis Uale (6'2", 199 lbs) is the most experienced option for BYU at safety. He started nine games last season, had 42 tackles and a fumble recovery. Uale has played hard in practices and has looked good enough to barely hold the edge as starter.
Newly-transformed Mike Hague is right at his heels, though. He has put the crutches away, shed the pounds and performed at a high level in his quest to play defense for the first time in his career.
Hague will see time on the field as safety.