Top 50 Countdown: No. 45 Brigham Young

Coach: Bronco Mendenhall | Staff
In 2006: 11-2, beat Oregon 38-8 in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Returning starters: Offense: 6. Defense: 7.
Key losses: QB John Beck, TE Jonny Harline, RB Curtis Brown, WR McKay Jacobson, LB Cameron Jensen, LB Aaron Wagner, DB Justin Robinson, DL Hala Paongo.
2007 breakdown: Top 10 players | Outlook | Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule

Breaking down the offense

Overview: Brigham Young must replace the top skill-position players that helped the Cougars end the 2006 season on a 10-game winning streak. John Beck ranked second in the nation in passing efficiency last year in his third season as a starter. Rivals.com third-team All-America tight end Jonny Harline caught 12 touchdown passes, while Curtis Brown rushed for 1,010 yards and caught 62 passes. The Cougars won't have any of those guys this fall.

BYU TOP 10
Fui Vakapuna is ready to carry the load for the Cougars.

1. C Sete Aulai
2. S Quinn Gooch
3. OT Dallas Reynolds
4. LB Bryan Kehl
5. OG Ray Feinga
6. RB Fui Vakapuna
7. OG Travis Bright
8. DE Jan Jorgensen
9. CB Ben Criddle
10. WR Austin Collie
Best player: C Sete Aulai.: In his first season after transferring from El Camino Junior College, Aulai earned second-team all-Mountain West Conference honors while allowing just one sack during the regular season. Aulai collected 108 knockdowns and played a vital role on an offense that ranked fourth in the nation in passing offense and total offense. He was one of 46 centers selected to the Rimington Trophy watch list.

Most underrated: The entire offensive line. The skill-position players at Brigham Young earned so much attention last season that the offensive linemen were more unnoticed than usual. That should change this season now that Aulai, Dallas Reynolds and Co. have developed into some of the team's most familiar faces. The veteran line is easily the biggest reason why Brigham Young appears in our preseason top 50 despite having to replace QB John Beck, RB Curtis Brown and TE Jonny Harline.

Must step up: RB Fui Vakapuna. He rushed for 445 yards and eight touchdowns in a reserve role last season. The Cougars are counting on the combination of Vakanupa and Manase Tonga to replace Brown's production.

Shoes to fill: QB Max Hall. The sophomore transfer from Arizona State has the unenviable task of replacing Beck, who graduated as the Mountain West's all-time career leader in total offense (11,059), passing attempts (1,418), completions (885), passing yards (11,021) and touchdown passes (79).

Impact newcomer: Hall: He spent the 2006 season quarterbacking the scout team while NCAA transfer rules prohibited him from playing. Since he redshirted his lone season at Arizona State, Hall still hasn't thrown a pass in a college game.

Position battle: Tight end. The Cougars certainly have plenty of qualified candidates to replace Harline. Dennis Pitta played well this spring after missing the last two seasons while on a Mormon mission. Vic So'oto is back after an injury forced him to redshirt last season. Andrew George is the only candidate who lettered last season. And don't forget about Devin Mahina, a four-star prospect and the jewel of the Cougars' most recent recruiting class.

New in 2007: Hall is the most high-profile newcomer, but the return of wide receiver Austin Collie from a Mormon mission and the losses of Harline and Brown give this entire offense a new look. The only truly familiar faces are on the offensive line, which returns four starters. Former North Carolina offensive line coach Mark Weber has taken the same position at BYU, which had an opening after Jeff Grimes was hired as Colorado's offensive line coach and assistant head coach.

Grade the units:
QB: C. Hall's inexperience makes this position the great unknown, though BYU's rich quarterback history makes you think he can succeed.
RB: B-minus. We're guessing Vakapuna has enough experience to adjust to a starting role.
WR: C. The loss of Harline puts more pressure on the wideouts. The Cougars may need Collie to pick up right where he left off three years ago.
OL: A-minus. Aulai and Reynolds lead a line that returns four starters and could rank among the nation's best.

Breaking down the defense

Overview: Although the losses on offense have garnered more attention, Brigham Young also must replace linebackers Cameron Jensen and Aaron Wagner. The pair combined for 182 tackles last season. The Cougars also need a cover corner to take the place of Justin Robinson, who had a team-high four interceptions a year ago.

Best player: SS Quinn Gooch: He earned second-team all-Mountain West honors last year after collecting 66 tackles with two forced fumbles and two interceptions. He solidified his status as a big-game performer last year by collecting 10 tackles and an interception in an overtime loss to Boston College.

Most underrated: LB David Nixon: He led the Cougars with 10 tackles for loss last year and had a huge game (seven solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack) in a victory over Texas Christian that catapulted BYU to the Mountain West title. So why didn't he even receive honorable mention when the all-conference team was announced at the end of the season?

Must step up: LB Kelly Poppinga: Somebody has to make all those tackles that Jensen or Wagner would have made if they were still on the squad.

BYU Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Arizona
Sept. 8 at UCLA
Sept. 15 at Tulsa
Sept. 22 Air Force
Sept. 29 at New Mexico
Oct. 13 at UNLV
Oct. 20 Eastern Washington
Oct. 27 at San Diego State
Nov. 3 Colorado State
Nov. 8 TCU
Nov. 17 at Wyoming
Nov. 24 Utah
Shoes to fill: CB Kayle Buchanan. This senior has dealt with injuries each of the last two years, but the Cougars will need a full season out of him as he attempts to replace Justin Robinson.

Impact newcomer: CB Brandon Bradley. He originally committed to Louisville, served a Mormon mission and then sat out last season after injuring his knee during summer workouts. Now this redshirt freshman finally is ready to begin his college career and could challenge for a starting job.

Position battle: Cornerback. We've already harped on this throughout the profile of BYU's defense, but the Cougars need to find an adequate replacement for Robinson if they want to succeed in the pass-happy Mountain West. Buchanan has the inside track on a starting job, but Bradley could push him for playing time.

New in 2007: There aren't any changes in the coaching staff or the 3-4 scheme, but the Cougars do have to replace two starting linebackers (Wagner and Jensen), one cornerback (Robinson) and a defensive lineman (Hala Paongo) from last year's team.

Grade the units:
DL: B-minus: Sophomores Jan Jorgensen and Russell Tialavea give the Cougars a young but solid foundation here.
LB: B: We're guessing the Cougars have enough depth here to overcome the losses of Jensen and Wagner.
DB: B-minus: Ben Criddle and Gooch are two of the top defensive backs in the Mountain West.

Breaking down the special teams

Overview: The departures of kicker Jared McLaughlin and punter Derek McLaughlin (no relation) could leave BYU scrambling on special teams. The Cougars are banking on redshirt freshman Mitch Payne to handle the kicking and punting duties.

Best player: Payne: The Cougars better hope this guy turns into their best special-teams performer because of his multiple responsibilities. Payne, the younger brother of former BYU kicker/punter Matt Payne, made field goals from 53 and 54 yards out and averaged 41.6 yards per punt as a high school senior before leaving on a mission. Payne went 1-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the spring game. He connected from 27 yards out and missed from 46 and 52 yards.

Grade the units:
K: C-minus: Payne proved in high school he had plenty of range, but can he translate that success to college?
P: C-minus: The questions surrounding Payne's inexperience as a kicker also apply here.
KR: C-minus: The departures of Curtis Brown and McKay Jacobson leave the Cougars without their top two kickoff returners from a year ago.
PR: C-minus: BYU must find a replacement for Nathan Meikle, who averaged 11.3 yards per return last season.

Breaking down the coaching

Season outlook with bowl forecast
Brigham Young probably lost too many top skill-position players to win a second consecutive Mountain West title, but the Cougars' veteran offensive line and talented coaching staff should prevent them from slipping too far. Although a tough non-conference schedule early in the season could cause BYU to stumble out of the gates, the Cougars should recover well enough to earn a bowl bid and finish 9-4.
Grade the coaches:
Head coach: A-minus: Bronco Mendenhall has helped Brigham Young regain its status as a national program by building a defense that can keep up with the Cougars' vaunted offense.
Offense: B-plus: BYU has averaged at least 33 points per game in each of its two seasons with Robert Anae as offensive coordinator. Can the Cougars approach that success this year with a new quarterback and offensive line coach?
Defense: B-plus: Four of BYU's five defensive assistants have at least five years of experience on the Cougars' staff. Mendenhall serves as his own defensive coordinator and helped BYU rank 10th in the nation in scoring defense last year.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

Rivals.com is counting down our Preseason Top 50. Coming tomorrow: No. 44.

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