Monday, August 3, 2009

Finally... Camp Week

[Originally posted on August 3, 2009 at]

After a long summer spent living with the memories of last season’s shortcomings, BYU’s fall camp finally arrives this week. Players report on Friday and the first practice will be held on Saturday morning, August 8th. Here is a look at key stories and positions to watch heading into fall camp.

Open Practices
Three practices and a meet the team event will be open to fans:
Aug 14—10am (practice)
Aug 14—5pm (practice)
Aug 18—10am (practice)
Aug 18—6pm (Cougar Kickoff, meet the team event)

Scrambling for Tickets
After twelve consecutive sellouts dating back to the 2007 opener against Arizona (W, 20-7), and a better than usual home slate, season ticket sales were halted last week. If you are still in the market for tickets, your best bet now is either a student package if you qualify (went on sale Aug 3rd at 9am and is likely to sell out soon) or single game tickets for the games with fewer tickets reserved for the visiting team (Air Force, Utah State, Colorado State).

Positions to Watch During Fall Camp
Going into fall, this season’s position battles essentially break down into three categories:

1. Battles for open or unsettled starting spots (OL, WR, CB, DT, ST)

Offensive Line—Only Matt Reynolds (6-6, 320 So), who started as a freshman at the key left tackle spot last year (Freshman All-American) returns, leaving four vacant spots created by the departure of seniors Dallas Reynolds, Ray Feinga, Travis Bright, and David Oswald to NFL camps. The likely replacements all come with significant experience, so although this position represents the biggest question mark on the team, it is one that is in good hands.
o Keep your eyes on RJ Willing (6-5, 310 Sr) who has experience at nearly every line position and is expected to start at center.
o Pencil in Terrence Brown (6-3, 351 So) at right guard, as he took all of the reps with the ones in spring and crashed the two deep as a freshman prior to his missionary service.
o Either Nick Alletto (6-6, 318 Jr) or fresh-off-a-mission Braden Hansen (6-6, 286 Fr) are expected to win the battle for right tackle.
o Jason Speredon (6-5, 305 Jr) and redshirt JC transfer Jesse Taufi (6-4, 302 Jr) will be battling it out at left guard. Ryan Freeman (6-4, 275 So), who returned from a mission this spring after cracking the two deep as a freshman in 2006, is a potential dark horse.

Wide Receiver—The departures of Austin Collie (led NCAA in receiving yards last year and now with Colts) and Michael Reed have opened the door for several talented receivers to step up. It is unclear how many will make Robert Anae’s rotation, as it has varied over the last several years, but here are the leading contenders:
o McKay Jacobsen (5-11, 192 So), is all but guaranteed one of the open spots, as he was a significant contributor as a freshman prior to his mission and is one of the fastest players on the team.
o The remaining open spot is being seriously contested by a half dozen returning players, with the leading competitors being Luke Ashworth (6-2, 201 Jr) and O’Neil Chambers (6-2, 209 So). Spencer Hafoka (6-0, 183 So), back from an extended and serious bout with influenza that kept him out during spring, must be considered a serious candidate as well.

Cornerback—Brandon Bradley (6-0, 200 Jr) has solidified his position at one of the CB spots, but the departure of Brandon Howard from the other side, leaves possibly the most glaring hole on the team. In contrast to the other key open positions (OL, WR), that return players with significant experience to compete for starting spots, this one is wide open and will likely be filled by a newcomer.
o There are three incoming JC transfers, brought in specifically to challenge for this position—Brian Logan (5-9, 195 Jr), Lee Aguirre (5-9, 200 Jr), and Corby Eason (5-9, 180 Jr). Not having stepped a foot on campus yet, they are essentially unproven, but it is expected (and hoped) that one of these will be able to perform at a level high enough to win the job.
o Should the JCs falter, watch for redshirt freshman Garret Nicholson (5-9, 181 Fr) or returned missionary freshman Robbie Buckner (5-10, 165 Fr) to step in and take over.

Nose Tackle—This position will be interesting to watch only if returning starter Russell Tialavea (6-3, 286 Sr) leaves for his mission and does not participate with the team this fall. Should he delay his mission until after the season, he is a lock to start. If not, this significant hole would be likely filled by Romney Fuga (6-2, 280 So) who started prior to his mission, or Rick Wolfley (6-3, 352 Jr) an offensive lineman switched to DL to add depth at the position.

Special Teams—A number of key spots on special teams will be open this fall. Departed are Austin Collie on kick returns (NFL), Justin Sorenson on kickoffs (mission), and CJ Santiago on punts (graduated). Punt return ranked among the worst in the country last year and was done by committee, so it goes without saying that it is wide open as well.
o Watch for WR O’Neil Chambers to return at one of the kickoff return spots, with the other spot a key area of interest going into fall camp.
o Mitch Payne (6-2, 210 Jr), who handled kickoffs his freshman year (prior to the arrival of super-leg freshman Justin Sorenson), and will be handling place kicking duties again this year, should be back at kickoff duty. It will be worth watching to see if his distance has improved from the 2007 season, where his short kicks were a frustration to the team and fans alike.
o Riley Stephenson (6-0, 175 Fr), just back from a mission, and Tyler Holt (5-9, 177 So) should battle for punting duties.
o Punt return is wide open, but look for WR McKay Jacobsen to be a prime candidate as he was especially effective in that role as a freshman in 2006.

2. Interesting developments or battles for key backup spots (QB, RB)

Quarterback—Max Hall (6-1, 201, Sr) has had the QB spot locked down for three years now, but fans and coaches will be watching closely to see how return missionary transfer Riley Nelson (6-1, 195 So) progresses. Brendan Gaskins (6-4, 213 Sr) was the backup last year and this spring, but should be pushed by Nelson, who will be the only returning quarterback next season, so look for coaches to try to get Nelson some game time reps in preparation for next seasons battle with Jason Munns, James Lark, and Jake Heaps for the starting job.

Running Back—Harvey Unga (6-0, 239 Jr) is also a lock at running back for the third season in a row. Last season, without a reliable backup, Unga carried nearly the entire load at running back and began to pay the price physically for that effort as the season wore on. Coaches are hoping to avoid a similar fate this year and will be trying to find a back that can take some of the burden this fall. Primary candidates are JJ Di Luigi (5-9, 198 So), Malosi Te’o (5-10, 199 Fr), and Brian Kariya (6-0, 212 So). In particular, fans are hoping to see Di Luigi to perform at the level expected of him after a highly decorated high school career and a disappointing freshman season. Also look for fullback Manase Tonga to take some reps should he be able to rejoin the team.

3. Positions that are essentially determined and of less interest (LB, S, DE, TE)

Linebacker, safety, defensive end, and tight end are all filled with senior returning starters. There won’t be much question in camp as to the personnel manning the spots, as much as the level of performance they are able to achieve. While DE and TE should have all-conference, and possibly even all-American performances again this year coming from TE’s Dennis Pitta (6-5, 248 Sr) and Andrew George (6-5, 249 Sr), and DE Jan Jorgensen (6-3, 259 Sr), the linebacker and safety positions need to improve if BYU is going to win a conference championship this year.
o Safety—Scott Johnson (5-11, 188 Sr) has been moved from CB to free safety and Andrew Rich (6-3, 215 Jr) takes over at strong safety. Improvement over last year is expected, with these two now at the helm.
o Linebacker—There are five returning senior linebackers in the two-deep. This group was embarrassed in the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona, so improvement is needed. They have been working hard and fans will want to listen for any vibe surrounding this group.

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