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March 12, 2011
BYU is heading into a season of transition everywhere except on the field.
Off the field, the Cougars are adjusting to the move from the Mountain West Conference to independence. On the sidelines, the offensive coaching staff features plenty of new faces following the resignation of offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
But between the lines, there isn't much change at all.
BYU returns nine starters on offense and six on defense from a team that won five of its final six games last season. All that experience could help the Cougars rebound from a relatively disappointing season. BYU had won at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons before slipping to 7-6 in 2010.
Here's a look at where BYU stands heading into spring practice.
Positions of strength
BYU looks in great shape across the board on offense. QB Jake Heaps came on strong late last season as a true freshman and should show plenty of improvement in his first full season as a starter. Heaps threw 13 touchdown passes and only two interceptions over his last five games. Heaps has solid targets in WRs Cody Hoffman (42 catches, 572 yards, seven TDs) and McKay Jacobson (37-410-1). JJ Di Luigi is one of the nation's more versatile running backs, as he rushed for 917 yards and caught 45 passes last season. The Cougars also return four starters on the line, including All-America candidate Matt Reynolds at tackle. On defense, the Cougars are loaded at linebacker, where they return three starters and also welcome back Jordan Pendleton, a 2009 starter who missed much of last season with a knee injury.
Help is needed
BYU's talent-laden offense may have to put up plenty of points early in the season because the Cougars are breaking in two new starting cornerbacks. BYU could have a tough time replacing Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley, both two-year starters at corner. The secondary also must replace first-team All-Mountain West selection Andrew Rich at strong safety. The run defense improved in the second half of last season, but was that real improvement or just weak opponents?
3 guys to watch
WR Ross Apo: Rated as the No. 108 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class, Apo dislocated his left index finger in an early-season practice and played only one game before taking a redshirt. Apo is back this season and should fortify a receiving corps that already features Hoffman and Jacobson. Apo's 6-foot-3 frame should create plenty of matchup problems.
CB Preston Hadley: After helping Snow College (Utah) win two conference titles and serving as a team captain as a sophomore, Hadley enrolled at BYU in January and will be able to participate in spring practice. By arriving on campus early, this newcomer should get a head start on the competition and could win some playing time in a secondary that doesn't have much experience.
K Justin Sorensen: After handling kickoffs and long field-goal attempts for BYU as a freshman in 2008, Sorensen spent the past two seasons on a church mission. Now that he's back on campus, Sorensen is the favorite to take over as BYU's main kicker. Sorensen has a hard act to follow, as Mitch Payne ended his college career as BYU's leading career scorer.
The pressure is on
LB Jordan Atkinson[/db]: Although he went into last season as a projected starter, Atkinson didn't play at all because of a shoulder injury. Atkinson is returning to action for his senior season, but will have to compete for playing time in a crowded linebacker corps. The Cougars return three starters at linebacker and also have Pendleton, who made 10 starts in 2009 before sitting out last season. Atkinson has a tough road ahead as he tries to compete for playing time.
BYU's late-season surge began after Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and started running the defense himself. The Cougars are hoping an overhaul of the offensive coaching staff works out just as effectively. Mendenhall promoted quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman to offensive coordinator after Robert Anae's departure. Newcomers to the staff include former BYU and CFL WR Ben Cahoon as the receivers coach and former Navy slotbacks coach Joe DuPaix as the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator. Lance Reynolds, the former running backs coach, now is the tight ends coach. The staff moves probably won't result in any major scheme changes. The players will have to adjust quickly to these staff changes because the Cougars a tough early-season schedule as they make the move to independence status. BYU travels to Ole Miss and Texas and plays host to Utah and UCF in its first four games.