FROM PULLMAN — To get a better idea of what Washington State will be facing tomorrow in Provo, we're joined today by Brandon Gurney, who covers BYU athletics for the Deseret News. He was nice enough to answer five questions for us about the game. You can read them below.
1. Bronco Mendenhall has said he thinks this might be the most talented team he’s had at BYU. Would you agree?
“Defensively, yes. Offensively, not even close. The defense returns a lot of experience along its front seven, including four senior defensive linemen who have all started since their freshman years. Inside linebacker and outside linebacker are both deep and as talented as any linebacker group I've covered at BYU. The defense is led by outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who is simply the best player on the team at any position. Secondary is normally a weak spot for BYU, but this group has a lot of potential and some good experience.
“On offense, BYU has fielded much better talent over the course of Mendenhall's tenure as head coach. There are a lot of question marks along an offensive line that underperformed last season, a relatively new offensive backfield and a largely unproven tight end position. What isn't a question mark is the ability of wide receiver Cody Hoffman. He was the top play-maker for the offense last season and he's back along with Ross Apo, who is as talented as any WR the team has had in recent years.”
2. How much was Riley Nelson aided by taking hold of the starting job last year? Is he a bigger threat as a runner or a passer?
“Nelson was undoubtedly aided tremendously by having the job entering both the spring and fall practice sessions, but I think it aids the offense, as a whole, more than it does Nelson personally. BYU entered 2011 with almost no identity on offense due to an unpopular starting quarterback running a system that flopped big-time out of the gate. This year, the offense is tailored to the strengths of Nelson who is very popular among his teammates.
“Nelson is not your typical BYU quarterback. He isn't a guy that can take five-set drops 40 times per game and disect a defense. He's not that guy. He's undersized, he has a weak arm and he's not necessarily all that fast or quick, but he does have a knack for simply making plays. He's a lot like his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman, who starred at QB for BYU back in 2001. Doman did his best work out of the pocket that year, running an untypical BYU offense that relied on option and roll-outs. You can expect Doman to tailor an offense similar to what he ran in 2001, as a result.”
3. Where will BYU’s production at running back come from?
“Michael Alisa will be the main running back for the team this season. He came on strong during the last half of 2011 to upseat a couple of seniors to handle primary running back responsibilities. He's a bigger back at 6-1, 220 pound and runs very aggressively between the tackles.
“There are a lot of question marks behind Alisa, however. Sophomore Iona Pritchard (6-0, 244) will work as the team's primary fullback and is someone coaches are excited about. David Foote (5-11, 200 Sr.) will likely see reps behind those two along with a couple of exciting freshmen (Adam Hine, 6-1, 202 and Jamaal Williams, 6-0, 190.) BYU was awful at running the football at the start of 2011 and are intent on changing that in 2012. As mentioned above, there are a lot of question marks along the offensive front, so it will be interesting to see if they can pull off a productive ground game against WSU.”
4. BYU fans seem pretty confident about their defense. What do they do well?
“I'm personally expecting this to be the best BYU defense I've seen since I started covering the team in 2003. They don't have many question marks at any defensive position, but lack depth at cornerback and at defensive line.
“Mendenhall, who is also the team's defensive coordinator, should be more aggressive with his defensive scheming this year. He went ultra-conservative with his base 3-4 package after bringing his hyper-aggressive 3-3-5 system to the team back in 2003. He found out that BYU doesn't have the athletes necessary to run an aggressive scheme most years, but they do look to have the athletes to be more aggressive this season. Expect BYU to bring a wider variety of coverages and blitz packages against WSU as a result.”
5. How has BYU fared the past few years against teams that throw the ball as much as WSU will?
“Pass defense has historically been a weak spot for BYU, but this looks to be the best defensive backfield I've seen since 1996. Please note, that the bar is relatively low regarding defensive backfield strength at BYU, but these guys should be pretty good.
“Mendenhall ran a 2-4-5 defensive alignment the majority of the time during the last half of last season, so this defense should be well-prepped going against a Mike Leach offense. Granted that they've yet to face a passing attack as potent as what WSU should present on Thurs., but they're confident in their ability to defend a spread-offense. With good cover OLBs and three highly-talented safeties, BYU should be able to limit what WSU is able to do through the air, but it will be a great test. If you're looking for an area that WSU can exploit, look for man-on-man matchups between Marquis Wilson and sophomore corner Jordan Johnson (5-10, 185), who will be making the first start of his career.”