The BYU Cougars have already started fall camp and are poised to have a monster year. The Cougars are loaded with returning starters from last seasons 8-5 team who are looking to add to already successful careers. There are also some big-time newcomers who are looking to make their respective mark on the program this year. With the abundance of talent that litters the Cougars’ roster in 2014 there are more than a handful of players who need to have big seasons for BYU to find success. This is the list of the best of the best of those players. They are who will carry the load for the Cougars this season as they try to make another step forward to get their name back into the national conversation as one of the best football schools in the country.
Here is a look at the most important players for BYU to have a successful season in 2014.
Defensive stats are from cfbstats.com, offensive stats from Sports-reference.com.
11. Devin Mahina, senior, tight end: Mahina hasn’t had the career many expected when he came to Provo, Utah, thanks in part to a series of injuries that have allowed him to play in 24 games over four years. Even though he hasn’t produced huge numbers (26 receptions for 310 yards and two touchdowns), he has the skill set to make a huge impact as a senior. He is a solid route runner with good hands who needs to have a good season to give Taysom Hill a security blanket in the passing game and open up space for the talented receiving core.
10. Jordan Johnson, senior, corner back: after an impressive junior season, Johnson missed all of 2013 thanks to a serious knee injury. Although players like Robertson Daniel and Sky PoVey filled in admirably, they couldn’t replicate all that Johnson does on the field. He is and great cover corner who can lock down even the best of opposing wide receivers. If Johnson can return to form in 2014, he will be able to free up Craig Bills and Nebraska transfer Harvey Jackson to fly all over the field and make plays.
9. Bronson Kaufusi, junior, linebacker: after a couple of impressive seasons on the defensive line for the Cougars, Kaufusi moves to line backer for BYU thanks in large part to his great size and speed. In 2013, he was able to get into the opponents back field and do damage (four sacks, seven tackles for loss). For BYU to be successful in 2014, he needs to learn the position quickly and make plays on the outside while still getting into the backfield and disrupting the opposing quarterback.
8. Jordan Leslie, senior, wide receiver: after three tremendous seasons on the field for UTEP (125 receptions for 2,105 yards and 15 touchdowns in 36 games), Leslie comes to the BYU with hopes of finishing out his college career in a big way. He can be used as both a deep threat and a possession receiver for an offense that is trying to replace one of the best receivers in school history in Cody Hoffman. Leslie already knows what the spot light feels like and knows how to get it done on the big stage. He will need to produce like he did for the Miners in 2012 (51 catches for 973 yards and six scores) for the Cougars to have a special year.
7. Manoa Pikula, junior, linebacker: after a solid showing in 2013 (30 tackles, including four for loss and three sacks), Pikula will be asked to step up and replace the production from the middle line backer spot that was provided by Uani Unga a season ago. Although, those are some pretty big shoes to fill, Pikula definitely has the ability to get it done for the Cougars defense to thrive once again.
6. Mitch Mathews, junior, wide receiver: Mathews showed flashes of greatness in 2013 as a playmaker, but needs to be even better this season for BYU to improve. Even though he was limited to just nine games because of injury he still caught 23 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns. Although no one player can replace the production of Hoffman, Mathews has the size, speed and experience to become a prime weapon for Hill and help lead the Cougars to a great year.
5. Alani Fua, senior, linebacker: although he didn’t receive very much pub because of the exploits of Uani Unga and Kyle Van Noy, Fua was a big play maker for the Cougar defense in 2013. He can get to the quarterback (three sacks), make plays in coverage (two interceptions and nine passes defended) and is a sure tackler (64 tackles, including five for loss). Now the Unga and Van Noy are both gone, Fua will be counted on to step up his game even more if BYU wants to find success this upcoming season. Fua is a lanky backer who can do it all.
4. De’ Ondre Wesley, senior, offensive line: for the Cougars to have a great season they really need Taysom Hill to stay healthy. The player who can do the most to make that happen is Wesley. He played in 12 games (nine starts) at right tackle, according to BYUCougars.com in 2013 and was a big reason why BYU had an impressive offensive year. For the Cougars to have a chance to have a better season this go around, Wesley will need to make sure that Hill has time in the pocket to find open receivers and lanes for the running backs to get big yards.
3. Jamaal Williams, junior, running back: Williams returns to BYU after an extraordinary season as a sophomore (217 carries for 1,233 yards and seven touchdowns). He is a dual threat back who can get you the hard yards between the tackles or hit the edge because of his great speed. He is also a great weapon in the passing game as a safety valve for Hill. For the Cougars to have the best year possible, Williams needs to produce on the field like he did in 2013.
2. Craig Bills, senior, safety: Bills is a hard-hitting safety who has shown the ability to make plays in the box (78 tackles in 2013) and protect the defense from giving up the big play in the secondary (seven passes defended in ’13). As one of the leaders on the defense and the only returning starter from the safety position, he needs to continue to make plays all over the field this time around for BYU to have the best season possible.
1. Taysom Hill, junior, quarterback: after a successful sophomore campaign, Hill is back to try an improve on a season that saw him break the rushing record for a quarterback at BYU (1,344 yards and 10 scores on 246 carries). While he was dominant with his feet, he struggled with his accuracy (53.9 completion percentage) and decision-making (14 interceptions) in the passing game early on in 2013. For BYU to be great this season, he needs to be much more consistent in the passing game while still creating plenty of chances with his legs. If he can make strides to that end while staying healthy, there is no doubt that the Cougar offense will be one of the best in all of college football.