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PROVO, Utah --- It hasn't happened around these parts very often. In fact, it hadn't happened at BYU since before head coach Gary Crowton had learned to drive. Interestingly, the Cougars' new defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall, had just started elementary school the last time Cougar faithful endured a similar case of the blues.
Not since a U.S. postage stamp cost just $.08 had BYU suffered more losses than victories in a single season. Not even a single player on last year's roster can remember the last time the Cougars endured a losing season--none of them had been born.
1973, the year before Atari came out with a hi-tech, home video game called "Pong", marked the last time BYU posted a losing record. Ironically, like Crowton, it was also LaVell Edward's second year as the head coach in Provo.
"You don't like to dwell on those things," Crowton says. "Winning just five games and not going to a bowl game is unacceptable. It's just unacceptable. I sat home during the bowl season and watched all those bowl games on television thinking, 'There's no reason why we shouldn't be there.' I don't want to go through that again. I think we have been able to learn from our mistakes. We've made some changes, and are looking ahead to next season."
Luckily for Crowton and Cougar faithful, history is on their side, not to mention some outstanding recruiting and a little depth and experience to boot. After Edwards posted a 5-6 record in 1973, the Cougars didn't have another losing campaign for 29 years. And not since 1970 and 1971 has BYU suffered back-to-back losing seasons. So, here's to 29 more winning seasons, 23 more bowl games, 20 more league titles, another National Championship, and who knows, maybe even a few more Heisman, Doak Walker and Outland award winners. History says it is possible, and no one around here doubts history.
"I've had a lot of time to think about last season. There were a lot of factors that came in to play. Some of it, I take responsibility for. However, we had to battle some key injuries and had to work with some youth and inexperience. We really didn't have anyone really ready to run the offense, from an experience standpoint. If I had to do it over again, I would probably do some things a little differently. It was one of the hardest situations I have ever been in as a coach."
Entering his third season at BYU, Crowton will have more to work with. While the Cougars will be without the services of two key offensive linemen, two future NFL tight ends and a shifty, play-making receiver, they do return a nucleus of solid, experienced performers, along with some newcomers who are looking to make an immediate impact on offense.
Defensively, a new, high-energy defensive coordinator, along with an entertaining, pursuit-oriented philosophy and all 11 starters returning should make for a much-improved defensive unit.
"I think we're going to be pretty good," Crowton added. "We have a better idea of our personnel, we have new coaches, new energy and some good chemistry. With the tough schedule that we have, I'm hoping all this excitement will carry over to the regular season. I know this, it will be fun."
Make no mistake; there are no "Bo Diddley Techs" on this year's schedule. Right from the start, the Cougars will have their hands full. The schedule features three top-25 teams from last season, and seven different teams that played in post-season bowl games. Overall, the 2003 list of opponents registered 83 wins during the 2002 campaign, including seven teams that won seven or more games.
"This is one of the toughest schedules we've ever had, especially the non-conference schedule," head coach Gary Crowton said. "It will be a challenge for us. We're going to have to continue to work hard and be prepared. I'm excited about some of the things we'll be doing, and I think we'll be ready to go."
BYU will look to avenge last season's loss at Georgia Tech when the Ramblin' Wreck comes to town for the 2003 season-opener on Thursday, Aug. 28.
One week later, BYU will travel to the L.A. Coliseum--one of the most historic sporting venues in the country. The Cougars will take on USC in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The Trojans, with Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, defeated seven different top-25 teams during the 2002 season, including a 38-17 victory over Iowa in the Orange Bowl. The Trojans finished the 2002 season as the fourth-ranked team in the country.
Perhaps the highlight of the 2003 schedule will be a Nov. 15 trip to South Bend, Ind., to take on Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish finished the 2002 season with a 10-3 record, a No. 17 national ranking and an appearance in the Gator Bowl. This season's contest will mark the first of three games scheduled between the two schools over the next three years. The Fighting Irish own a 2-1 record over BYU, dating back to the first meeting in 1992. However, the last time the two teams met (Oct. 15, 1994) the Cougars came away with a memorable, 21-14, victory in South Bend.
In other non-conference action, the Cougars will host Stanford on Sept. 20 for the first-ever meeting between the two schools, and Boise State will travel to Provo for a nationally televised contest on Friday, Oct. 31. The Broncos finished the 2002 season with an impressive 12-1 record, including a 34-16 win over Iowa State in their third Humanitarian Bowl victory over the past four seasons. BSU finished the season ranked No. 12.
The MWC season will kickoff on Saturday, Sept. 13 in Albuquerque, as the Cougars travel to New Mexico for their first of four league road games. After a non-conference tilt against Stanford, BYU will host Air Force on Sept. 27. The following week, the Cougars will travel to San Diego State for a night game against the Aztecs.
The MWC season will round out with a Thursday-night, nationally televised game in Provo against Colorado State, road games at Wyoming and UNLV, and the regular-season finale against in-state rival Utah on Saturday, Nov. 22.
"We have a very tough schedule," Crowton said. "The concern I have is that we play two very tough teams early. I'm not afraid of those teams, rather I'm concerned that we go in and play those team, get a little beat up, then have to play a league game in the third week of the season. We want to make sure we grow and get better through the first two games, and not get in a situation where we're forced to play guys without much experience as we get in to conference play. It is a great schedule though. It's a very aggressive schedule, and I think we will be able to do well."
Last season, the Cougars began the season with relatively little experience at the quarterback position. Bret Engemann, who started a handful of games in 2000, was named the starter, but had missed the entire 2001 season after recovering from shoulder surgery. Redshirt freshman Matt Berry had just returned from a mission, sophomore Todd Mortensen had very little experience, and Lance Pendleton was a relative unknown.
After taking over starting duties seven games in to the 2002 season, and finishing the season as the top quarterback, Crowton said the starting job is Berry's to loose. In seven games last season, Berry recorded 1,309 yards and had a team-leading seven touchdown completions.
"Matt will be the starting quarterback as we enter camp," Crowton said. "I think Matt showed some great things as a young quarterback. He had a good spring, and with a year under his belt, I think he'll do well. He's been working hard and is anxious to get out there."
Berry will be pressured right from the start. Freshman John Beck returned from a Church mission shortly after the 2002 season, and has been working hard to earn a shot. Beck performed well during spring drills, and in one scrimmage went 6-for-6 for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
"John Beck is a pretty good player," Crowton said. "With our second team, during spring drills, John was able to move the ball, and get in the endzone. He has a lively arm, and has shown some mobility. He's a football junkie and I like that. He will be putting a big push on Matt."
Mortensen, now a junior, will also be competing for playing time. He has seen action as a backup over the past two seasons, including five appearances last season.
"Todd is a very intelligent person," Crowton said. "He is always prepared and is one of the hardest working guys out there. He's a guy you love to have around as a coach. You know if you go to him, he's going to go in and get the job done. He'll certainly be in the mix."
After making a valuable contribution last season, Pendleton returns for his sophomore season. The 6-0, 185-pound play-maker was a "situational" contributor last season, playing in 10 different games throughout the season. Not only did Pendleton complete over 51 percent of his pass attempts, but he also finished as the Cougars' third-leading rusher. Crowton said because of the depth at quarterback, and with Pendleton's athletic ability, the coaching staff is considering switching Pendleton to receiver or defensive back.
"We're not sure what we'll do at this point," Crowton said. "Lance is very athletic, and we would like to find a way to use his skills a little more. We'll be addressing that a little later. Right now, he's in the mix at quarterback."
Marcus Whalen. Marcus Whalen. Marcus Whalen. The 5-11, 210-pound junior returns to the starting lineup after posting a team-best 918 yards last season, averaging over five yards per carry. Not only will Whalen be the starting running back, he will also be a player to watch for All-MWC honors.
"Marcus is a solid, physical player," Crowton said. "He has the ability to be one of the top backs in the Mountain West Conference. He showed some good things last year, and if he stays healthy, will have an even better season."
The Cougars' second-leading rusher, Curtis Brown, is likely to redshirt the 2003 season, leaving the door wide open for Naufahu Tahi to make his much anticipated return. Tahi led the Cougars in 1999 with 445 yards and has recently returned from a two-year Church mission.
Crowton anticipates Thomas Stancil, a redshirt freshman Bakersfield, Calif., and Reynaldo Brathwaite, a junior from Spring Valley, Calif., will also see significant playing time this season.
"Tahi had a good spring," Crowton said. "He is in shape (after his mission) and is a very physical runner. He's playing well and will be able to help us out. Stancil and Brathwaite are very fast, and very shifty. I'm excited about them. I thought they had a nice spring. They will be able to help us out, and add a great deal of depth for us at running back."
In a bit of a switch for the Cougars this season, Crowton said he would look to use a fullback in situations where he has usually used a three tight-end formation. Tafui Vakapuna, a redshirt freshman is expected to carry the load at fullback. Senior Kyle Wilson, who has shown incredible strength and power, will also be competing for playing time at fullback.
"Fui is playing very well. He's very physical," Crowton said. "He's good at catching the ball out of the backfield, and is a good blocker. Kyle Wilson is also another guy who will see some time at that position. He's very physical and is a smart player. We're looking at doing more things with the fullback position instead of using three tightends."
The question offensive coaches have had to ask is, "How do you replace a play-maker like Reno Mahe?" During spring drills, Crowton said he may have an answer.
"Chris Hale is a home-run waiting to happen," he said. "I have been very impressed with Chris. He has good hands and gives us more speed on the outside."
Hale, who BYU fans will remember as the mild-mannered, sure-handed freshman who caught the game-winning touchdown reception against Washington in 1999, is back from a Church mission and looks to have picked up even more speed. He will be joined on the outside by Rod Wilkerson. The 6-2, 190-pound junior ranked fourth on the BYU roster last season with 27 receptions for 371 yards.
"I think we are going to be very solid, and very disciplined at receiver," Crowton said. "We need guys to step up and make some plays once they catch the ball."
Toby Christensen returns for his final season at BYU, and is slated as one of three starting receivers. Christensen ranked third among all receivers last season, registering 30 receptions for 346 yards as a junior. Jason Kukahiko, who made great strides near the end of the 2002 season, is another tall, sure-handed, athletic receiver who will see plenty of playing time.
The Cougars will also look to junior David Christensen for his play-making ability. The 5-0, 187-pound receiver was slowed during spring ball with a dislocated shoulder, and had surgery to repair the injury. Coaches expected Christensen to be ready to go during fall camp. Ryan Slater, another junior is noted as being a sure-handed, physical receiver who will see significant playing time this season. After showing signs of great things to come as a true freshman back in 1999, Bristol Olomua has returned from a Church mission and is expected to make a definite contribution.
"Toby Christensen had a very good spring, and is a sure-handed, well disciplined receiver," Crowton said. "He has a lot of experience, and we'll be counting on him this year. David Christensen had a nice spring before he got hurt, and I think Ryan Slater has also done a nice job for us. He's very physical and has done some real good things. I was also impressed with Bristol Olomua during spring ball. He's a big receiver and we're excited about his potential."
Under the direction of new receivers coach, Todd Bradford, there are some young receivers to also keep an eye on. Sophomore Breyon Jones garnered the attention of the coaching staff during spring drills, along with redshirt freshman Brett Cooper. Walk-on sophomore Matt Smith had an impressive spring season and is certain to see action during the coming season. Other receivers expected to compete for playing time include Cody Fonnesbeck, Joe Omer and Mark Hansen.
Replacing tight ends Spencer Nead and Gabe Reid, who are both bound for the NFL, has been a bit of a concern for BYU coaches. That concern spurred Crowton to move a growing Daniel Coates from wide out to tight end. Coates entered fall camp last season as a 6-foot-2, 200-pound true freshman. After a redshirt season, and an increase of some 40 pounds, Coates will be competing for a starting job at tight end.
"At tight end, we lost two very good tight ends," Crowton said. "I don't think it is a big surprise, but Daniel Coates has been doing a great job. He blocks well and has done a nice job learning the tight end position."
Senior Just Jory, who redshirted the 2002 season, will also see plenty of action at tight end, and will be battling Coates for the starting job. Aisaac Aiono, who was one of the Cougars' well-used tight ends last season, returns for his sophomore season and will see significant action this season.
"Jory is doing a nice job," Crowton said. "He's a very dependable player and will do a good job. Aionno was one of three different tight ends we used a lot last year. He'll bring some experience to the position. I feel very confident with these three. They're all solid players and all have good hands. We're a little youthful at tight end, but I have been very encouraged by what I have seen so far."
Other tight ends who will be competing for playing time include junior Andy Hadfield, freshman transfer Phillip Niu and redshirt freshman Jeremy Gillespie.
If the offensive line can overcome the effects of youth, they will be able to rely on some big, physical players who just keep coming and coming. Depth will be the key factor.
"We're looking at having two freshmen starting on the offensive line," Crowton said. "And with a couple other young guys, including Ofa Mohetau, who was one of the top offensive line recruits in the country, we'll be a little youthful. However, we're going to have some depth, which is something we just didn't have last year.
Junior Brandon Stephens (6-6, 285), who switched from the defensive line last season and saw playing time at tackle, is slated as the starter at right tackle this season. He will be backed up by freshmen Gary McGiven (6-3, 295) and Paul Fisher (6-7, 305).
At right guard, Crowton has tabbed redshirt freshman Jake Kuresa (6-4, 330) as the starter. He will be backed up by Brian Sanders (6-3, 330) and freshman David Sollami (6-3, 280).
The Cougars return a healthy senior lineman in Scott Jackson (6-5, 300), who started all 12 games at center last season. As the most experienced lineman, Jackson will be called upon to anchor the offensive line, and provide leadership for a young supporting cast.
"Last year Scott was a little gimpy going into the season," Crowton said. "He started the year only eight months out from having ACL surgery. The year before, he had a broken ankle. This year he is solid. He's strong, experienced and looks like he's ready to go."
Jackson will be backed up by junior Hanale Vincent (6-5, 315) and sophomore Rob Robinson (6-5, 255).
"Hanale has done a nice job at center," Crowton said. "He will be able to provide some key depth for us at center."
At right guard, the Cougars return senior Quinn Christensen (6-6, 300), who saw significant playing time last season. He will be backed up by converted defensive lineman Scott Young. Crowton said Mohetau will also figure in to the mix, but would wait on making any decisions.
"We've moved Scott Young over from the defensive line," Crowton said. "I was hoping to redshirt him, but it looks like he's getting ready to play. I think he has done a nice job making the switch. He's big, strong, and very physical. Quinn Christensen is who we are going with at this point, but Ofa is a guy who could come in and challenge for playing time. I feel like he is good enough to play as a true freshman, but we'll have to see how quickly he can adapt to the new environment, the team, the offense, the speed of the game, and if the other guys are playing well, with good chemistry, we may not have to play him right away. But, that won't be determined until probably the end of fall camp."
At left tackle, Eddie Keele (6-5, 300), who recently returned from a Church mission, has been listed as the starter. Freshman Scott Fisher (6-7, 300) will challenge for playing time at left tackle, along with junior Cade McMullin (6-4, 295).
"Just looking at this group, with two freshman starting, and possibly a third with Ofa, we're pretty youthful," Crowton said. "But, I think this group is pretty talented. As long as we can stay healthy, and take advantage of the depth at certain positions, I think we'll be all right."
At the conclusion of spring ball, two of the three starting positions seemed fairly secure, however some key injuries during spring ball prevented defensive coaches from shoring up a starting lineup. Junior Brady Poppinga, who posted a team-leading eight sacks last season is secure at right end. However, junior Nate Kolbaba had a solid spring and will be competing for playing time.
At left end, senior Bill Wright has beefed up and successfully made the move from linebacker to defensive end. Following spring ball, Crowton said Wright is likely to enter the season as the starter at left end. He will be challenged by junior John Denney, who started seven games at left tackle last season.
Sophomore C.J. Ah You and senior Ryan Gunderson will also challenge for starting jobs at defensive end. Crowton indicated Shaun Nua is likely to redshirt the 2003 season.
At the nose tackle position, injuries during spring ball left coaches looking to fall camp to shore things up. With key players out due to injury, several young players were able to step up and showed they deserved consideration for playing time.
Players who will be battling for the starting job at nose tackle include Manaia Brown (6-4, 310), Justin Carlson (6-3, 240), Daniel Marquardt (6-2, 300), Moa Peaua (6-0, 280) and Ifo Pili (6-3, 310).
While the starting defensive line will sort itself out, one thing is certain, depth will be on the Cougars side this season.
"I was impressed during spring practice with some of the younger guys who were able to step up and show they deserved to play," Crowton said. "Guys like Justin Carlson and Nate Kolbaba had a great spring season. Carlson has a motor that is always running, and Kolbaba made some nice plays. We are going to have the luxury of trying to select starters from a group of guys who could all start. I think we'll see a lot of these guys during the season, but because some of them were injured during spring ball, we didn't get a good look at some of these guys."
The heart of the BYU defense will be the deep, quick and senior-laden linebacking corp. All three starters are back, and with the return of a couple missionaries as well as developing, young players, the Cougars will be in good shape at linebacker.
Mike Tanner, who recorded 57 tackles, including 21 solos, took over the starting roll at middle linebacker seven games into the 2002 season. The 6-1, 235-pound senior has been slated as the starter entering fall camp. His back up will be a pair of recently returned missionaries in K.C. Bills (6-1, 220) and Lawrence Cowan (6-3, 235). Senior Ammon Mauga is also expected to see time at middle linebacker.
Colby Bockwoldt, a 6-2, 230-pound senior will hold down right-side linebacking duties. Bockwoldt, who runs a legit 4.5 in the 40, was the team's third leading tackler last season, recording 51 solo tackles and 34 assisted takedowns. Sophomore Bryant Atkinson (6-3, 225) and senior Brent Carlson (5-11, 238) will also be competing for playing time.
At the left side linebacker position, senior Levi Madarieta was listed as the starter following spring drills, however senior Paul Walkenhorst, who figures to be in the mix, missed spring drills while recovering from a knee injury. Senior Nick DiPadova (6-0, 205) will also compete for playing time.
"We have some depth at linebacker this year," Crowton said. "With the depth, we have a lot of experience. With Tanner, Bockwoldt and Walkenhorst or Madarieta, all three linebackers will be seniors. With the new defensive system, our linebackers are going to be key. Our backers are quick and very physical. I think their skills will fit well with our philosophy."
As part of the new 3-3-5 defensive scheme, the BYU secondary will feature three safeties, including two Katbacks and a Cougarback.
All-Conference performer Aaron Francisco will anchor the secondary as the starting Cougarback. Francisco ranked second on the BYU roster with 99 tackles, including 51 solos. Francisco, a fleet-foot, sure-handed, hard-hitting, well-conditioned athlete is the perfect player for this new defensive position.
"Aaron is a tremendous football player," Crowton said. "He's extremely dedicated and is a very hard worker. He can hit and has very good speed. He's the type of player that will be in on almost every play. He has a great nose for the ball."
Freshmen Corby Hodgkiss and Quinn Gooch will play a back-up roll at Cougarback.
Junior John Burbidge has been listed as the starter at the right-side Katback position, while senior Kip Nielsen is slated to start on the left side. A host of players gained valuable experience during spring ball and are expected to contribute at safety, including junior Jared Meibos (5-11, 208), senior Josh Brandon (6-0, 190), sophomore Ed Kinsey (5-9, 170) and freshman Adam Nelson (6-2, 180). Coaches expect James Allen to contribute as well. Allen, a 5-10, 170-pound junior saw limited action during spring drills due to a re-aggravated ankle injury.
Cougar fans can rest easy this season. All-MWC performer Jernaro Gilford is back, and he's healthy. Back for his senior season, Gilford had an outstanding spring, and did not miss a down.
"It will be good to have Jernaro back," Crowton said. "He's back and he's healthy. He didn't miss a play or a single drill during spring ball. Jernaro is a very good player. He's big, physical and knows how to play his position. It will be good to have him back this year."
Seniors Chad Barney and Brandon Heaney will also compete for a starting position. While Barney had a solid spring, Heaney saw limited action after recovering from shoulder surgery. Due to Gilford's injury, both Barney and Heaney started at cornerback last season.
Junior Micah Alba (5-8, 165) and sophomore Nate Soleberg (6-0, 170) each showed improved development during spring drills, and are expected to compete for playing time.
Junior Matt Payne is BYU's "Mr. Special Teams." Payne returns as the team's leading punter and kicker. He earned an honorable mention All-America citation and twice earned Mountain West Player-of-the-Week honors for his outstanding performances last season. He will enter the season as one of the top punters in the nation -- a sure candidate for the Ray Guy award, as well as All-America honors.
"It's nice going in to the season not worrying about our kicking game, or our punter," Crowton said. "Matt is a very good punter. He is especially good at getting the ball inside the 20-yardline."
Junior Tyson Dunham begins his second season with the Cougars, and will challenge Payne for punting duties. Trent Williams has recently returned from a Church mission, and will work to see playing time at kicker.
John Denney has been listed as the first-string deep snapper, while David Christensen has been tabbed as the team's top punt returner. Christensen, along with Brathwaite and Stancil will compete for kick-return duties.
The 2003 recruiting class, which is made up of four top offensive line recruits, two highly recruited defensive linemen, two linebackers, tight ends and defensive backs, as well as a skilled, long-range field goal kicker, constitutes Crowton's third recruiting class since taking over the BYU program in December, 2000.
"Most of our recruiting was geared towards the front seven on both sides of the ball," Crowton said. "We had some key positions to fill, and build for the future. I think we were able to sign some guys who will be able to make an immediate impact in some of those positions."
Regarded by many recruiting services as the top offensive line class in the country, the Cougars signed the No. 1 offensive line prospect in the nation, Ofa Mohetau (Euless, Texas). Mohetau turned down impressive offers from the likes of Miami (Fla.), Texas and Arizona State to play for the Cougars next season. Equally impressive in the eyes of BYU recruiters, SuperPrep All-Region performers Dallas Reynolds (Provo, Utah), Jason Speredon (West Valley City, Utah) and R.J. Willing (Kahuku, Hawaii) also signed letters to play for the Cougars. All three players had offers from Pac-10 and Big-12 programs.
"Offensively, we needed to get offensive lineman in the program that we can work with and build up. Ofa is, in our opinion, along with many others, the best run blocker in the country," Crowton said. " I am also excited about the local kids we signed. Dallas Reynolds, Jason Speredon, and also R.J. Willing are going to be a great group for us. They have got good size, they are athletic, and they are all good kids. These guys are already at a different level coming into the college game.
Brian Soi, a high school All-American, and a highly regarded defensive line prospect from Provo's Timpview High School, will join Brett Denney, a defensive standout from Thornton, Colo., along BYU's defensive line.
"Defensively, Brian Soi has a chance to play early," Crowton said. "He could have an impact on this program very early."
Crowton said he was also pleased to receive letters from linebackers Matt Ah You (Cedar Hills, Utah) and David Nixon (College Station, Texas).
"David is a very talented player," Crowton said. "I like him, and think he will help our program because he moves well, runs well and has a good sense for the ball. Matt is very physical and can hit."
Including JUCO transfer Walt Williams, the Cougars signed defensive back Aaron Attig from Moapa Valley High School in Moapa Valley, Nevada.
"We needed to address some current, as well as future needs at defensive back. I think these two guys will help us a great deal. Walt Williams is a good player and he is worth waiting for. He has a unique situation."
Crowton also said tight end Dan Van Sweden, who helped lead Northridge High School to a third straight 5A state championship, will be a welcome addition, along with Philip Niu, who originally signed with Colorado State before serving a two-year Church mission.
And, as if one Payne wasn't enough, the Cougars added all-state kicker Mitch Payne, who is the younger brother of current BYU kicker/punter Matt Payne. Mitch averaged nearly 42 yards per punt and hit 11 field goals, including two 53-yarders during his senior campaign.
Written by BYU Athletic Media Relations