Fall Practice Preview: What to Watch For

BYU fall football is back. The players of the 2003 team made their way to the field by position Saturday afternoon. First the offensive linemen, running backs, wide receivers… One by one and unit by unit they came past the media throng.

The Utah media, including TOTAL BLUE SPORTS (TBS) magazine, were there in force snapping photos, getting interviews and asking hard-hitting questions already of head coach Gary Crowton.

While TBS has received official recognition for our magazine, we are still going through the process of gaining official access for the TotalBlueSports.com website with BYU officials who have been accommodating.

We have been told to expect official word from BYU this week regarding practice access for the TBS website – even as we attend daily practices gathering information for our magazine. BYU officials have yet to make a final judgment whether the TBS website is fully compliant with the school's new policy for all media websites covering BYU.

Meanwhile, I was able to interview Coach Crowton and a several players yesterday for the TBS magazine.

This will be TBS' first full season covering football and we are excited. Football is back.

Prior to yesterday's first practice, TBS compiled our list of the most intriguing sub-plots and stories for the coming fall practice session. Here goes:

Every fall prior to the season, several important elements must be worked out in order for any football team to be successful. The development of these areas will largely determine how well BYU does this season. Here is our list of the most pressing areas to watch for during the upcoming fall preseason practices:

1. Development of the Offensive Line: If we seem obsessed in the coming weeks with the development of this unit, please excuse us. This unit will determine the success of this year's team more than any other.

Players like Scott Jackson, Quinn Christensen and Brandon Stephens are known commodities. It is the young players that will garner a lot of early attention. We are talking about freshmen Eddie Keele, Jake Kuresa, Ofa Mohetau and possibly RJ Willing.

Keele made great strides during spring practice. It was a moderate surprise to just about everyone when he was thrust into the starting left tackle role and maintained it throughout the spring. He is extremely talented, but still has a lot to learn. If he shows as dramatic an improvement during fall camp as he did in the spring, Berry's backside should be well-protected. Keele underwent a minor heart procedure some weeks ago, but will be ready to play come August 28.

Kuresa, a top 100 national recruit out of high school, weighs in at over 350 pounds, but maintains excellent speed and quickness for his size. Mohetau, considered by several national recruiting experts as the COUNTRY'S BEST OFENSIVE GUARD RECRUIT IN THE LAST 10 YEARS, also was over 350 before fall camp, but he carries it well with his athleticism, quickness, speed and power. Even coach Crowton has said they are at the weight he wants them both at.

Both should prove effective as punishing pull and straight-ahead blockers. The question is how they respond in recognizing assignments, reading blitzes and working with their veteran linemen. They will be under the coaches and fan microscopic scrutiny and will play a major factor in how well the offensive line performs as a unit. Kuresa was a spring practice first-teamer. We do not expect him to lose the spot. Mohetau needs to earn his spot, but you can bet he'll see a lot of looks with the first and second team units once practices commence.

2. Development of John Beck: Let us state upfront the quarterback job is Matt Berry's to keep or lose. Berry does not plan on relinquishing that position anytime soon. He's sharp, knows the offense better than anyone and is now fully recovered from his mission after gaining valuable experience last season.

Beck has lived up to his hype in spring and summer drills. He is the #2 QB in the depth chart and will push Berry as hard as he can for the starting nod this fall. There is definitely a buzz about his physical and leadership abilities. However, the best indicator of Beck's abilities is the fact he's already secured the #2 position behind Berry after just one spring practice heading into fall practices.

Beck's improvement over spring practice was very impressive. We anticipate he will improve in fall camp. Again, the job is Berry's to lose and we've yet to see any indication he will lose it. Rest assured Beck will push Berry and that is good for his future development – and for the program as a whole.

3. Running Backs: The top spot belongs to Marcus Whalen and there is no debate about that. He will lead the RB corps heading into fall practice. What isn't so much of a sure thing is who plays behind Whalen, how much and in what game situations?

We are referring to talented Fahu Tahi, Fui Vakapuna, Thomas Stancil and Rey Brathwaite. We feel very comfortable with any of these players spelling Whalen when the need arises. Each has unique abilities and brings different strengths to the table.

Tahi is like a Whalen clone in his ability to burn straight-ahead, while showing great lateral movement. Stancil has shown remarkable strength up the middle, but his strength lies to bouncing it outside and juking in the open field. Brathwaite is a slasher in the mold of a Jamal Willis with speed to burn. Vakapuna will allow Crowton to use a true fullback as his abilities are tremendous.

4. Aaron Francisco: Yes his foot is healing quite nicely and won't be a problem. A player with his importance in the new scheme will be under the microscope. If he's slowed or doesn't recover as quickly or as fully as expected, that would be a great concern for the new defensive scheme which highlights his position and role.

5. How will the Defensive Line Shake Out? We can't recall a time when the coaches have been presented with so many viable options at one critical defensive position. Which players step forth and are willing to work and thrive in Bronco Mendenhall's defensive system will be extremely interesting.

Nebraska transfer Manaia Brown gets a chance to show whether the pre-season hype and hoopla is warranted, but there are others like senior starter Ifo Pili, sophomore Daniel Marquardt and freshman walk on Justin Carlson-Maddux very much in the mix. Even more interesting may be the Defensive End position where Poppinga comes in as the only established starter.

Brady Poppinga is an immovable lock at defensive end. Bill Wright won another DE spot during the spring. However, John Denney has received raves for his off-season efforts and is widely considered as the best athlete of the DEs. CJ Ah You is fully recovered from a major knee injury that sidelined him all of last season and it remains to be seen if he is as good as he was before two knee operations.

6. Who will be returning kicks? Crowton has given little indication of who will be returning kick offs and punts this coming season. BYU spent little time practicing special teams during the spring and, judging from the list Crowton gave during the spring as players he'd consider, it would seem the return options are still wide open.

David Christensen, Toby Christensen, James Allen, Nathan Soelberg, Thomas Stancil, Rey Brathwaite, Marcus Whalen, Chris Hale, Chad Barney and Curtis Holder have all been mentioned. How that shakes out is anyone's guess.

7. Newcomers: Look for stories to unfold regarding Dan Van Sweden, David Nixon, Chris Warner and Scott Johnson. How much of an impact will they make, if at all?

8. Replacing Paul Walkenhorst: Which player will step up to replace injured linebacker Paul Walkenhorst? It will be Levi Madarieta's position to lose, but players such as Bryant Atkinson and David Nixon will have a say.

Of course we can hardly mention up-and-coming linebackers without mentioning KC Bills. Based on his performance during spring, He was very impressive. He's quick, strong, fierce, determined with great instincts for the ball and Mendenhall loves him. Look for him to push Mike Tanner at the middle linebacker spot.

9. Replacing Quinn Gooch: Who? He would have been a name Cougar fans would be very familiar with had he not blown out his ACL during spring. His was the back-up Cougarback behind Francisco. Corby Hodgekiss is the current backup, but Mendenhall mentioned he may try new faces at the most critical backup position in his defense.

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