As spring football season draws to a close across the country, BlueandGold.com will be providing a breakdown of how things wrapped up for each of Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents courtesy of the reporters that cover them on a regular basis.
A BYU running back is swallowed up by a sea of Texas tacklers. The Cougars running game was a weak point last season.
Brigham Young University
Oct. 20, 2012 — 3:30 p.m. EST
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
Head coach: Bronco Mendenhall (66-24 record entering his eighth season)
2011 record: 10-3
Brigham Young’s recent success under Mendenhall has not come from the school’s traditionally rich history of quarterbacks. The Cougars defense carried the team to double-digit wins last year while finishing in the top 25 in all four major defensive categories.
Mendenhall, a defensive specialist, fired his coordinator midway through the 2010 season and took over the job himself. BYU won 15 of the next 19 games. The defense returns their core at the linebacker position. Playmakers Kyle Van Noy and Brandon Ogletree are both back for their senior season. The Cougars have a few holes to fill in the secondary, but should have another strong group this year.
“I think [Van Noy] is an NFL caliber linebacker,” said Deseret News beat writer Jeff Call. “The other guys are very talented as well, so I think they feel very good about the depth and talent there.”
On offense, The next anointed one under center was supposed to be five-star recruit Jake Heaps. Heaps lost his job last season and is now in Kansas with Charlie Weis. Senior Riley Nelson will run the offense this year after taking over early last season. Nelson is more dangerous on his feet than the typical BYU quarterback, and he'll have a solid crew of wide receivers to find in the passing game.
A serious rash of injuries and offseason surgeries held the Cougars back this spring. Most of the offensive line and four of the team’s five tight ends missed at least some time. Call said the result was a watered down spring game that showed very little of what BYU might look like in the fall.
Biggest Strength After Spring: Wide Receivers
The linebacker group is a close second here, but BYU expects to have a pretty dynamic duo in Cody Hoffman and Ross Apo to stretch the field on offense. Apo, a sophomore, caught 34 passes and scored nine touchdowns last season. He’s expected to take another big step forward with a full year under his belt.
Hoffman is the headliner. The junior started lighting up defenses last season when Nelson took over for Heaps. He finished the year with 61 catches for 943 yards and was a major threat returning kicks. He capped the year with a game-winning touchdown against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl.
“He was kind of invisible through the first few games of the year, and then as Riley Nelson emerged Hoffman kind of emerged as well. He made some incredible catches and really big plays,” Call said.
Those two will be joined by a solid supporting cast of possession receivers like junior JD Falslev and potentially 6-foot-6 freshman Mitch Matthews.
Biggest Question Mark After Spring: Offensive Line
Injuries hit the line harder than any other position during the current offseason. Four potential starters missed major chunks of the spring, which kept the BYU coaches from getting a good look at what kind of chemistry they will have up front this season.
They will have to replace veteran center Terence Brown and tackle Matt Reynolds. Redshirt freshman Ryker Matthews is the heir apparent at tackle. The 6-foot-6, 313-pound prospect was supposed to work into the mix last year before a foot injury sidelined him in fall camp.
“They have high expectations for him but he’s never played a down of college football at this point,” Call said. “They’re dealing with some inexperience there, and that’s probably the position that is of the most concern right now.”
Biggest Surprise of the Spring: RB Paul Lasike
Lasike donned a helmet and shoulder pads for the first time in his life this spring and looked comfortable right away. The 225-pound sophomore is an All-American rugby player for the Cougars, but decided to give football a try. He made a smooth transition and finished the spring game with some impressive numbers.
“Lasike is one of those mystery guys,” Call said. “He looked really good in the spring, but I’ve been doing this long enough where you see guys in the spring and then come fall you never see them, and they can’t match that production.”
Lasike could see some work behind projected starter Michael Alisa if he proves the spring wasn’t a fluke. BYU struggled to run the ball last year, especially early in the season. Alisa gave the rushing attack a boost late in the year.
Summer Storyline: Can Nelson stay healthy?
Nelson was also a big part of BYU’s running game last year. He ran for 503 yards and was the team’s third leading rusher. Mendenhall would like that to change in 2012 to try to keep him on the field. Nelson earned his teammate’s respect by playing with no regard for his body. That also led to a couple broken ribs last year and a season-ending injury in 2010.
“I think the big question is can Riley Nelson be a traditional BYU quarterback. Can he throw the ball downfield? We know he can make plays with his feet. He can improvise, but one of the focuses this spring is to be a little bit more efficient and make the throws he needs to make,” Call said.
If Nelson does go down, BYU will rely on senior James Lark to step in and take over at quarterback. Lark hasn’t played any significant minutes as a college quarterback and remains a question mark that Mendenhall and BYU hope they do not have to answer.