Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: After closing the 2011 season with four straight wins and victories in nine of their last 10 games, the Cougars had great expectations for last season even though they were fielding a group that consisted of 48 upperclassmen and a collection of 57 freshmen and sophomores.
The team began with consecutive wins over Washington State and Weber State by a combined score of 75-19, but then came tough rivalry meetings with Utah and Boise State on the road, resulting in back-to-back defeats by just a combined four points. The Cougars bounced back with wins over Hawaii and Utah State, although the latter came by a score of just 6-3. Inconsistent at best, BYU turned around and bowed to Oregon State and Notre Dame, falling to the Fighting Irish by just three points (17-14) on the road. BYU led at the break against UND, scoring a pair of offensive touchdowns against one of the tougher defenses in the nation, but after that the Cougars were barely heard from.
Lopsided wins against Georgia Tech (41-17) and Idaho (52-13) followed, but again the Cougars could not build on the momentum as they suffered a 20-14 road loss at San Jose State. Once more, the club responded with a 50-14 dismantling of New Mexico State, a program in the midst of what would be an 11-game losing streak, eventually taking out San Diego State rather convincingly in the postseason, 23-6. As an Independent the last two seasons, the Cougars have produced a combined 18-8 record, with victories in both the Armed Forces and Poinsettia Bowls, respectively.
Now with a mark of 74-29 in his eight campaigns in Provo, head coach Bronco Mendenhall can be comforted in knowing that he is now locked up with a contract extension through the 2016 season, signed in late June. Coach Mendenhall's defense gave the administration good reason to lock him up for a few more years, after the group held five opponents to a touchdown or less and placed third in the nation with just 14.0 ppg allowed overall.
"BYU is a special place and this is a special time," Mendenhall said. "I'm excited to build on the success of our program over past eight years, and I think there's much more that we can accomplish at BYU."
OFFENSE: A huge challenge for the Cougars for 2013 will be identifying a quarterback who can lead them for several more years. Gone is Riley Nelson who appeared in 10 games, starting nine, as he completed 58.8 percent of his attempts for 13 TDs and just as many interceptions.
James Lark had a much better touchdown-to-interception ratio (8-to-2), but he too is no longer with the program, opening the door for sophomore Taysom Hill to take over the offense. Hill saw time in six games, starting once, last year and completed better than 59 percent of his pass attempts, en route to four TDs against a pair of picks.
Making the transition to a new signal-caller a little bit easier is the return of senior wide receiver Cody Hoffman, who leads all active FBS receivers in career receiving touchdowns (28) and is third in total catches (203). An All- America candidate and on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award yet again, Hoffman owns the fifth-highest total for all-purpose yards (4,052) in school history.
Throw in Ross Apo and JD Falslev as fellow returning starters on the outside and Hill, or perhaps Ammon Olsen, who is listed second on the depth chart, should have some clear-cut options down the field.
Coming out of the backfield, one that is protected by three returning starters along the offensive line, will be running back Jamaal Williams who had more starts than anyone else at the position in 2012, resulting in a team-best 775 yards and 12 touchdowns on 166 carries.
DEFENSE: The Cougars were dealt a serious blow on the defensive side of the ball only days into the month of August when starting defensive back Jordan Johnson suffered an ACL tear in practice and will now miss the entire 2013 campaign. Johnson started 12 games a year ago, finishing with 48 tackles and 15 pass breakups, the latter tying him for 11th in the nation.
"He kind of planted his foot funny; (his) leg buckled a little bit; and that was all it took," Mendenhall was quoted by the Desert News.
The squad still has Craig Bills and Daniel Sorensen coming back in the secondary, but no one had a nose for the ball like Johnson and he will be very difficult to replace.
Sorensen is actually the top returning tackler for the program with 68 stops, adding three interceptions and a couple of forced fumbles, but with Johnson out of the picture he might need to step up his efforts even more in order to fill the void.
As great as Johnson was in 2012, the defender of record for BYU is still linebacker Kyle Van Noy who was a one-man wrecking crew for the Cougars and still decided to return for his senior season in Provo. A candidate for the Nagurski Trophy, and the Bednarik, Butkus, Lombardi, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards in 2013, Van Noy was an Third Team All-American selection in 2012 after he posted 22 tackles for loss and 13.0 sacks on just 53 total stops.
Spencer Hadley, who has shown that he can play inside and outside linebacker positions, was fifth on the team in overall tackles (55) and fourth with nine TFLs, taking a little bit of the focus off Van Noy.
Also garnering some preseason recognition is defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi who has been named to the watch list for the 2013 Ted Hendricks Award. A true freshman last season, Kaufusi saw action in all 13 outings for the Cougars, producing 5.5 TFL and 4.5 sacks on just 23 total stops.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A huge loss for the Cougars in the kicking game is the graduation of punter Riley Stephenson who delivered a staggering 26 kicks for more than 50 yards, nearly half of his 59 attempts overall. Stephenson averaged 45.4 yards per kick, with 30 of those landing inside the 20-yard line.
Early indications have Scott Arellano signing up as the punter moving forward, but nothing is written in stone.
Justin Sorensen, who combined with Stephenson on field goals in 2012, should have the position of placekicker all to himself this time around, even though he converted just half of his 12 field goal attempts, the longest being only 35 yards.
Returning kicks, whether they be punts or kickoffs, should be Falslev who handled both responsibilities a year ago. Falslev averaged 9.5 yards per punt return, nothing all that impressive, which is why he might get some competition in that particular area. He did have more favorable numbers on kickoffs, averaging 26.0 yard per attempt, but he wasn't the only one involved in that aspect of the return game either.
OUTLOOK: "I do know this program can achieve more. I am very confident in what's already been done and proud of what's been done, but I want more. The players want more," Mendenhall says of his expectations for 2013.
Many believe the upcoming schedule for the Cougars could be the toughest in program history. The squad has an even split with six home dates and a half- dozen road tests, facing off against seven programs that played in bowl games last season. Most notable on that list is fellow Independent Notre Dame (Nov. 16 in South Bend) which took a shot at the national title, but was blown away by mighty Alabama.
BYU begins the schedule with a road trip to Virginia in late August, but then the squad catches Texas, in-state rival Utah and Middle Tennessee all at home. During the first week of October the Cougars remain in the Beehive State, but still travel to Logan where they will contend with Utah State.
Late October and early November also pose issues for the Cougars as they host Boise State and then travel to Wisconsin. so there is little time for the program to get settled in and feel comfortable as a slew of talented teams put them to the test.