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BYU has been one of the most consistent teams in the nation of late and again should challenge for the Mountain West title.
But questions at quarterback, running back and in the defensive front seven make it appear the Cougars are going to have to scrap to finish higher than third in the league.
There is a good offensive line and a solid secondary, but ultimately, it should come down to how well a new quarterback can lead an offense that also is breaking in a new feature back.
THE SCHEME: This is a diverse attack that strives for balance. For a school with a history of producing prolific passing attacks, the Cougars can be a physical bunch. Credit coach Bronco Mendenhall's hard edge. BYU features multiple formations and lots of shifting, always looking for mismatches and to get players into space. As a new quarterback is broken in, coordinator Robert Anae may have to rely on the ground game early on.
STAR POWER: It would've been RB Harvey Unga, but he is gone after an honor code violation. Unga was trying to become just the ninth player in FBS history to rush for 1,000 yards in four consecutive seasons. Instead, junior OT Matt Reynolds will be the offensive star in Provo. Reynolds, a 6-foot-6, 329-pounder, would be one of the top tackles in the 2011 NFL draft if he comes out early.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman Jake Heaps could be BYU's next great quarterback. He enrolled early after being lauded as the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback. Heaps, from Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline, is accurate and has good touch on his passes. It may be just a matter of time before he is a starter - and a star.
STRONGEST AREA: The new quarterback will have a solid corps of receivers led by McKay Jacobson, who averaged 24.2 yards on 23 catches last season. O'Neill Chambers is the leading returning receiver with 32, while Ross Apo is a hyped incoming freshman who could make an impact. But the staff must find a replacement for the standout tight end tandem of Dennis Pitta and Andrew George. Devin Mahina and Mike Muehlmann could be the guys.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: All eyes are on the race to replace QB Max Hall, a three-year starter. It was a three-man race in the spring among James Lark, Riley Nelson and Heaps, but none of the contenders did enough to win the job. The situation will get murkier when Jason Munns enters the fray this summer upon returning from a mission. If experience matters, Nelson could be the guy. He's a junior who began his career at Utah State, where he started the final eight games of 2006. But keep an eye on Heaps, who enrolled early and was the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback. The race figures to come down to those two; Nelson has better mobility, Heaps the stronger arm. The running attack without Unga suddenly is a big question as well.
THE SCHEME: BYU operates a 3-4 scheme and features better athletes than you think. Mendenhall's fingerprints are all over this unit, as his background is on the defensive side of the ball. It will be important for the defense to generate more big plays after ranking 101st in the nation in tackles for loss. That may be difficult to do with an overhauled front seven.
STAR POWER: At 6-3 and 223 pounds, SS Andrew Rich loves to lay the lumber on foes in what should be an excellent secondary. He plays the "KAT" position in this defense, which in reality is a de facto linebacker spot. Rich paced the squad with 85 tackles last season and tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman LB Zac Stout, a product of powerhouse Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, Calif., could see time at inside linebacker, where BYU must replace Shawn Doman and Matt Bauman. Stout is quick and aggressive, and could help ease the pain BYU fans felt when mega recruit Manti Te'o signed with Notre Dame in 2009.
STRONGEST AREA: A secondary that welcomes back three starters - including Rich and CB Brian Logan - looks solid. Steven Thomas could be the new free safety, with Brandon Bradley poised to start opposite of Logan at the other corner spot. But this unit would be under the gun if the front seven doesn't improve at pressuring offenses.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The front seven is being overhauled, and that hurts after BYU was No. 2 in rush defense in the MWC in 2009 (110.2 ypg). Coaches must replace Es Jan Jorgensen and Brett Denney and NT Russell Tialavea, but the staff likes Es Matt Putnam and Vic So'oto - who arrived on campus as a tight end - and NT Romney Fuga. Three starting linebackers from 2009 are gone. The new unit is fast and athletic and should be anchored by Brandon Ogletree. Aveni Leung-Wai, who has returned from a mission, and Jameson Frazier could play their way into the lineup.
Chambers averaged 25.6 yards on kickoff returns in 2009. P Riley Stephenson returns after averaging 41.3 yards per boot. And K Mitch Payne is back after hitting 10-of-14 field-goal attempts, including 4-of-7 from beyond 40 yards. Punt coverage was good in '09, but the kickoff-coverage unit was average.
The Cougars better hit the ground running with a schedule that opens with a visit from Washington followed by trips to Air Force and Florida State and a visit from Nevada. BYU will be favored to win all of its home MWC games: San Diego State, Wyoming, UNLV and New Mexico. The Cougars must capitalize because a daunting road slate includes visits to league heavies TCU and Utah in addition to the aforementioned trip to Air Force.
Mendenhall has led BYU to 10 wins in each of the past four seasons, and the Cougars are the only school from a non-Big Six league to be ranked in the final polls and the final BCS standings in each of the past four seasons. The only thing missing: a BCS bid. The schedule offers its share of challenges, but never underestimate the Cougars under Mendenhall. In 2009, BYU had to replace seven starters on offense, four on defense and two key specialists. The result? An 11-2 record, with a 3-1 mark against ranked opponents. TCU and Utah look better than BYU on paper, but each of the three will have a major say in who wins the Mountain West title.
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