BYU Cougars (2000: 6-6)
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Coach and programFor the first time since 1971, BYU won’t have the familiar presence of LaVell Edwards on the sideline. Edwards announced before the end of last season that 2000 would be his final year. It almost turned out to be his worst, too, as the Cougars struggled with a tough schedule and some gaping holes, in the offense in particular.
In December, the school hired one of its own, BYU grad Gary Crowton, as the head coach. He came from the Chicago Bears, where he was the offensive coordinator. Before spending two years with the Bears, Crowton was the head coach at Louisiana Tech, where he compiled a 21-13 record -- including 9-2 record in ‘97 -- in three seasons.
“I have always dreamed of coaching at BYU,’’ Crowton said. “To be able to follow in the footsteps of a legend like LaVell Edwards is incredibly humbling and challenging. I pledge to BYU that I will devote my energy to continuing BYU’s football tradition.”
The 43-year-old Crowton should bring new energy to a program that many believe has become a bit stagnant in recent years. The question is whether Crowton will have the same magic that Edwards has enjoyed for most of the last 30 years in Provo.
Edwards left behind a solid nucleus with 50 returning lettermen, including 27 on offense and 23 on defense. BYU returns seven starters on offense and six on defense, including seven All-MWC players.
“We feel like we have a lot to work with in terms of personnel,” Crowton said. “We will be using as much time necessary to evaluate the players we have and identify our strengths. The philosophy won’t be all that different. We’ll have a few different looks, but the key will be to adapt to the talent we have and go from there.”
OffenseBrandon Doman (6-1, 195), a senior who saw limited action his first two-and-a-half seasons, is the No. 1 quarterback heading into the season after leading the Cougars to two victories at the end of last year.
Brett Engemann and Charlie Peterson shared the job through the first eight games, until Doman was given the chance after nearly three seasons of waiting.
Doman got the start against New Mexico in Edwards’ home finale and directed the Cougars to a 37-13 victory. In passing for 349 yards and rushing for 51, he became the first BYU player since Steve Young to pass for 300 yards and rush for 50 in a game.
The Cougars are happy with their top two running backs, junior Luke Staley (6-1, 218) and senior Brian McDonald (5-10, 210), who gained most of the team’s rushing yards last year.
Staley finished with 479 yards on 130 carries, which was slightly more than the 432 yards he gained the previous year on just 92 carries, when he was voted MWC Freshman of the Year. Both seasons Staley was slowed by injuries.
McDonald, who transferred from Cerritos (Calif.) Junior College, played in every game last year and started twice and led the team with eight touchdowns. His 464-yard rushing total was just behind Staley, and he had a much better yards-per-carry average at 4.6. The best receiver may turn out to be Junior Mahe (5-11, 190), who is back at BYU after sitting out a year because of an honor code infraction and then playing a year at junior college. As a freshman at BYU in ‘98, Mahe rushed for 481 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry with six touchdowns.
Defense and special teamsThe Cougars lost the meat of their line with the graduation of Hans Olsen, Chris Hoke and Setema Gali and will have a challenge to produce another strong line, which has been a tradition at BYU over the years.
Senior Ryan Denney (6-7, 275) returns at right end after starting 11 of 12 games last year and finishing sixth on the team in tackles with 47. He also had four sacks, a fumble recovery and two blocked kicks.
Sophomore Ifo Pili (6-3, 315) is back from a church mission and could move right into a starting tackle slot. As a freshman before his mission, Pili shared starting duties and registered 17 tackles and a sack. Unlike their inexperienced defensive line, the Cougars have a wealth of experience at linebacker with all three starters returning from a year ago. In senior Justin Ena (6-3, 261), the Cougars have a solid anchor on the linebacking corps. Ena was a first-team all-league selection last year after starting all 12 games and leading the team with 107 tackles, including 11 for losses and three sacks.
Sophomore Jenaro Gilford (6-1, 180) returns at a corner position after missing last season because of a suspension for an off-the-field incident at the BYU campus. In ‘99, he played backup and came up with an interception, and is expected to be a solid contributor this year.
BYU first looked to replace NFL kicker Owen Pochman with senior Aaron Edmonds (5-11, 192), who also handles the punting for the Cougars. However, freshman Matt Payne (6-4, 247) won the job in the spring and will be backed up by Edmonds.
Bottom lineCrowton should get off on the right foot with a home game against Nevada for the season opener. If the Cougars don’t win, it will be a long season. After that it gets tougher with road games at Cal and Mississippi State before the Mountain West Conference season begins.
Crowton should bring some new excitement to Provo, although it will be hard to improve much on the passing game that has been such a big part of BYU football the last 30 years under Edwards. Watch for Crowton to get his career off to a winning start, but it may be tough to win a conference title. An 8-4 record might be as good as it gets.