Philadelphia, PA – 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Playing their first year as an independent program, the Cougars opened the 2011 campaign with a narrow victory at Ole Miss (14-13), followed by consecutive losses to Texas (17-16) and Utah (54-10). The team turned it up after that. After averaging a mere 13 points over those first three games, BYU averaged 35 points over its final 10 contests, never scoring less than 24 points.
The Cougars went an impressive 9-1 the rest of the way, including a late comeback win over Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl to finish 10-3. It marked the team's seventh consecutive bowl appearance under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, and it was BYU's fifth national top-25 finish in its last six seasons.
"We're a cohesive group that's really hungry," senior quarterback Riley Nelson said at the outset of preseason camp. "We're confident, but not overconfident."
OFFENSE: Second-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman conceded that he got in his own way with play-calling early on last season, but by the end of the year, the offense was a well-oiled machine, finishing fifth nationally in third-down conversions.
Nelson helped orchestrate the turnaround, replacing an ineffective starter in the fifth game and never looking back. Nelson entered in the third quarter against Utah State and capped off an 11-point comeback with the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds on the clock. Behind dual-threat Nelson, the team went 6-1 the rest of the season, although this year he'll need to improve upon his 57.4-percent completion rate.
BYU did not have a 100-yard rusher in any game last year, but Doman is confident that will change with junior running back Michael Alisa (6-1, 213) in line for more opportunities. Fellow running back Josh "Juice" Quezada recently decided to transfer.
Junior wideout Cody Hoffman (6-4, 208) finished last season with 61 catches for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns, three of which came in a record-setting performance in the Armed Forces Bowl. Sophomore Ross Apo (6-3, 206) set a BYU freshman record with nine TD grabs last year and gives Nelson a solid complement to Hoffman in the passing game. Right tackle Braden Brown (6-6, 301) is the lone holdover of an offensive line that has undergone quite a bit of turnover and position shuffling.
DEFENSE: Rush end Ian Dulan (6-1, 270) and nose tackle Russell Tialavea (6-3, 266) return to the defensive line after fulfilling a two-year mission. Eathyn Manumaleuna (6-2, 294), a 34-game starter at left end, also returns after leading all defensive linemen with 33 tackles last year.
Instinctive senior inside linebacker Brandon Ogletree, who notched a team-high 76 tackles a year ago, is the heart and soul of the defense. Fellow inside linebacker Uona Kaveinga impressed last year after transferring from USC, as he posted 57 tackles and tied a school record with four forced fumbles. On the outside, Kyle Van Noy racked up 68 tackles in a time share, also collecting a team-best 15 tackles for loss and three interceptions.
Senior Preston Hadley and sophomore Jordan Johnson form a solid cornerback tandem. Johnson, who picked off a pair of passes last year as a freshman, is the better athlete of the two. However, Hadley ranked 9th in the nation last year with 14 pass breakups. Safety Daniel Sorensen, a former linebacker, is the most punishing hitter in the defensive backfield.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Hoffman figures to handle kick return duties once again after setting a school record with 879 yards in 2011. However, former starting return man O'Neill Chambers is back from suspension and could step in if Hoffman ends up being limited to offensive reps.
Junior kicker Justin Sorensen, once a blue-chip recruit out of high school, struggled mightily in the second half of last season and spent the off-season recovering from back surgery to remove bone spurs. Even if Sorensen is fully recovered and able to start the year, the kicking game remains a concern. Then again, punter Riley Stephenson could step into that role, although it may affect his punting abilities. Stephenson averaged a healthy 42.2 yards per punt last year and played a vital role in the Armed Forces Bowl by pinning Tulsa inside its 20-yard line 7 times on 8 punts.
OUTLOOK: Mendenhall vowed to run a more intense preseason camp, with the goal of getting his players in top condition for the season ahead. In fact, it was the players who pushed for it.
"We have to learn to meet his expectations," Nelson said. "We have asked him to hold us to a very high standard. That includes attention to detail, and precision, and effort."
There are some weapons on offense, particularly at wideout. However, Nelson must improve his accuracy in order to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers.
The schedule features some tough matchups against big-time programs, including road games at Utah, Boise State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The Cougars are on the road for four of their final five games, making a solid start to the season critical. Barring a rash of injuries, another bowl appearance and top-25 finish could be in the cards.