Blue Blood: Pieces in place for special season for Cougars

COMMENTARY — Is it already that time of year again when our work and school week slows down to a crawl as Americans anxiously wait for their favorite football teams to battle it out weekly?

As I was driving a couple weeks ago, I noticed a local junior football player riding his bike down the street with his uniform, pads and helmet on, ready for that evening’s scrimmage. It took me back to the days where football was much simpler and my mother washed all of my practice and game jerseys. Those days, you did not have a locker and you got ready, showered, ate and slept at home.

byu logo2Those simple years were much different then all of my years in college and the NFL. It took me back to the days before high school. College and the NFL clouded the true sport with distractions, politics, money and huge egos. It made me happy for that young football player and frankly a little jealous of him. I kind of wished I was his age and pedaling my mountain bike right behind him, block-to-block, with all the thoughts of the week’s practice and preparation going through my head.

So it is official down here in St. George, football is under way. The afternoon rainstorms continue and the start of the cooler fall air is hitting all of the local practice and game fields around town.

We are now on week two of high school football and junior league games, so good luck to all of those young men. These fields are where young boys turn into men and learn all of the valuable lessons that America’s most popular sport has to offer. These lessons teach things such as discipline, work ethic, teamwork and mental toughness, physical strength and conditioning, and too many more to mention. These valuable life skills and lessons, in fact, propel youth into being successful throughout life. Some of these youths get an opportunity to play football at higher levels. Hopefully this southern Utah talent can make it up to my former team, the BYU Cougars.

Speaking of which, we are just a couple days away from BYU’s opener vs. the Virginia Cavaliers. Cougar fans have been anxiously waiting the arrival of the 2013 season. As I watched the 2013 schedule fill up with great competition, several questions started to pop into my head: How is this season looking for Bronco and his Cougar? What can Cougar football fans expect as a realistic goal for this year’s team and will they make a bowl game? Can BYU beat these great programs that they have scheduled for 2013? Can they finally pull out a home victory over the old rival, the University of Utah? The answers to those questions will reveal themselves in time.

Let’s just get right down to this week’s opener (as an old, retired NFL player, I like to take things one game at a time). The season opener, BYU at Virginia, is this Saturday 1:30 p.m. (MST). This will be no padded or soft opening game for either team, unlike some highly-touted Division I programs that pick out much smaller Division II programs to warm up with. It will be a very tough grudge match for both sides.

Virginia is a great competitor from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and obviously will have home field advantage in their favor. It is always tough to leave the high elevation and low humidity of Provo to go back East, with all of the travel and humidity.

The Cavaliers, with head coach Mike London (fourth season, 16-21 overall), are trying to recover from last year’s disappointing season, where they went 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the ACC. It was a frustrating year in which Virginia could easily have turned the 4-8 into 10-2. The Cavaliers lost several games to ranked opponents by a touchdown or less, including Penn State (17-16), Virginia Tech (17-14), Wake Forest (16-10) and Maryland (27-20).

Bronco Mendenhall is in his ninth season | Photo courtesy BYU Athletics
Bronco Mendenhall is in his ninth season | Photo courtesy BYU Athletics

Mendenhall is in his ninth year (74-29 overall) at the helm of BYU. The Cougars are also looking to get past a mediocre year in which they lost a several games they could just as easily have won, including close ones vs. Utah (24-21), Notre Dame (17-14), Boise State (7-6) and San Jose State (20-14). If the offense of the Cougars improves and Mendenhall’s defense stays strong, we will see a much improved and more consistent team than last year.

Vegas odds-makers have BYU favored by one point over Virginia on Saturday, but that seems like merely a guess, with nothing to go off of but but preseason power rankings, fall camp and last year’s performance.

Virginia commences its 124th season of college football, which is really cool when you think of how long this university’s program has been competing in football. These teams are meeting for the fourth time in history. Virginia owns a 2-1 advantage, with BYU winning the last meeting in 2000, a 38-35 overtime affair.

The first games and season-openers are always interesting, with all of the off-season shifting and players coming or leaving. There are also big coaching changes from last year to this year from both of these teams.

BYU has to prepare for new offensive and defensive schemes, with London hiring high-profile coordinators on both sides of the ball. Jon Tenuta is the new DC, with 33 years of coaching experience. He has been the defensive coordinator for Kansas State, Ohio State, Georgia Tech and, most recently, Notre Dame.

Steve Fairchild, the new OC for the Cavs, knows BYU well, having played and coach at Colorado State along with coaching stints at New Mexico and San Diego State.

On the opposite side of the ball, Virginia has to prepare for the return of Robert Anae as BYU’s offensive coordinator. Anae spent two years in Arizona, helping that program turn itself around. But now he is back with his “Go Hard and Go Fast” mentality.

Anae will be bring a very fast spread offense to Virginia on Saturday, so I am sure there will be adjustments made quickly on both sides of the ball. I was personally thrilled to have him back calling plays to help move this offense back to its glory days of hitting the end zone on a regular basis.

Anae is known for his really fast-moving spread option and zone attack. The last time Anae called plays for BYU was in their New Mexico Bowl game in 2010 a 52-24 win over UTEP. With the returning players BYU has on offense, this could prove to be any opponent’s defensive nightmare.

Kyle Van Noy
Kyle Van Noy

Do not forget about last year’s No. 3-ranked (nationally) defense. These guys look solid again with the return of Kyle Van Noy. The biggest concerns will be at cornerback (injuries in camp have hit hard) and finding someone to replace NFLer Ziggy Ansah.

There are a lot of great storylines in this game and it should be a lot of fun to watch.

I was a former BYU offensive lineman and played during the 2002-04 seasons. One thing I know is that if BYU is going to get back to its former offensive glory, it starts in the trenches. Winning the battle up front is critical. Anae hired former Cougar Garret Tujague as the new O-line coach. I am extremely interested in watching this first week’s line battle to see where the guys in blue are. There will be some rotations at these spots to keep the tempo up to Anaes “Go Fast and Go Hard” philosophy and mentality. If the BYU O-line can keep Taysom Hill’s jersey clean, this young stud of a QB will keep healthy and help Cody Hoffman set new records. If these Hogs (O-linemen) put bodies on bodies, Jamaal Williams and Michael Alisa will also have great ground games that will cause big mismatches for any defense. If these O-linemen stay healthy and gel as a group, this offense can be very, very good.

The BYU football schedule for 2013 is chuck-full of great and very talented teams and opponents. I do not believe this program has faced this tough of a schedule since 2004, when BYU faced three teams that went undefeated in the regular season. These teams included the likes of USC (who won the National Championship), Utah (Fiesta Bowl winners) and Boise State (11-0, lost in the Liberty Bowl). The 2004 schedule also had Stanford, Notre Dame and a few other great teams.

That ’04 team, which I was a part of, did not have the same depth and talent that BYU’s current roster has. This is where it gets particularly interesting to Cougar football fans. BYU is returning eight offensive starters from last year and five from its 2012 nationally-ranked defense. They luckily have had several great potential pro prospects return to the team healthy for their senior years, including Kyle Van Noy, Cody Hoffman, Kaneakua Friel, Daniel Sorenson, Michael Alisa, JD Falslev, Sklyer Ridley, Spencer Hadley, and Ross Apo. In Williams, BYU also has one of the most talented true freshman running backs I have ever seen returning bigger, faster, stronger and with much more experience. The offensive and defensive lines look to be solid, but will miss the NFL draft’s No. 5 pick, Ansah.

I just do not see this 2013 Cougars defense falling short of last year’s high standards. If you look at BYU’s defense over the Bronco era, you cannot point out a single year where the defense was not very good or great.

Last season, my frustration with the QB coaching, decision-making and play was at a boiling point. I think this problem is now a thing of the past. Taysom Hill is back from his knee injury and looking very healthy and solid. He will have much more experience under his belt and be looking to show his true potential.

I know we haven’t seen that much of Hill yet, but I can promise that if he stays healthy, the Cougars will not have a QB problem for a long time. I said it last year about him and Jamaal Williams: They are both very special players and we are watching some of the potential greats for BYU. And if BYU is forced to turn to back-up Ammon Olsen, I like his potential as well.

I hope all BYU fans are as excited as I am to start watching this season, because the Cougars can grab some great attention really quickly by beating some of these powerhouses they will be facing.

I believe we are looking at a team that will win at least nine games and has the potential to shock people if they stay healthy.

As for this opening week, playing on the road is always tough. But the pieces are in place for the Cougars to start the season off right. My pick: BYU 27, Virginia 24.

~

Scott Young is a sports commentator. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, 2012, all rights reserved.

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