The Daily Herald’s BYU football experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson weigh in on five of the biggest questions facing the Cougars this week:
1. Man-to-man defense
1. How much man-to-man defense should the Cougar football team play on Saturday against Texas State?
LLOYD: To me, this is a question that is getting far too much attention after the way things went at Houston. Kalani Sitake said that going into the game the plan was to play more man. Then BYU got off to a hot start and didn’t want to give the explosive Houston wide receivers like Marquez Stevenson big plays, so they settled back and tried to keep everything in front. It didn’t work. Houston scored 23 straight points, so the visiting Cougars went back to the initial game plan and it threw Houston quarterback Clayton Tune off his rhythm. The goal is to win the game and that’s what BYU did. What I like most is the fact that BYU has the defensive backs with the experience to play more man coverage. That gives Sitake and defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki the option to adjust as needed.
DICKSON: The biggest complaint by Cougar fans about the BYU defense has been — say it all together — the drop-eight mentality. In the second and third quarters of the Houston game there were far too many times when the Cougars seemed to be guarding grass instead of receivers. There were several instances that four or five BYU defenders were surrounding a receiver who simply stepped into a soft spot in the zone for an easy catch. I like the man-to-man approach because it can eliminate the passive element and make players rely more on aggression. Cougar coaches said this week that man-to-man was always part of the defensive game plan against Houston and they challenged the defense to step up and play it better in the second half. The key in my mind is mixing up the coverages so opposing quarterbacks don’t get as comfortable in the pocket as Clayton Tune was for much of the game.
2. Short-yardage situations
2. What does BYU have to do to be better in short-yardage situations?
DICKSON: A healthy offensive line would be a good start. Also, other teams now have five games to watch video of the Cougars short yardage sets. It’s a good time for the coaching staff to mix things up a bit from the two-tight end set with some different plays. Zach Wilson has enough experience now where he may have the option of checking out of a play in that situation and that would keep the defense off balance.
LLOYD: When you decide to play power football and bring everyone in tight on a third or a fourth-and-short, you absolutely cannot afford to have missed assignments. On the fourth-and-1 play near the goal line where BYU got stuffed, three blockers cracked back on two defenders, allowing an unblocked Houston linebacker to beat Masen Wake into the hole. When 22 guys are crammed into a small space, there is no room for error. I think BYU has to do a better job mixing things up, although in most instances a power run play when you need one yard is the right call. You just can't make it easy for a defense to know that is the call. Don’t forget that BYU had a fourth-and-1 where it faked the run and threw deep for a pass-interference call. Teams will have to be watching for that.
3. Wide receivers stepping up
3. If Gunner Romney is unable to go on Saturday, who will step in to help Dax Milne on the BYU receiving corps?
LLOYD: Isn’t it great that the Cougars have a couple of big-time playmakers on the edge? Not having Romney would hurt, but Milne has been fantastic (this may date me but he reminds me of Eric Drage from the early 1990s). Neil Pau’u has been good and I expect him to get even more looks, although he knows he’s got to be a little more sure-handed when the ball gets to him. This is also a time where guys like Keanu Hill, Chris Jackson and Kody Epps can show what they can do as well.
DICKSON: It looked as if Wilson was looking for Neil Pau’u a little more in the game against Houston. I was also impressed with the catch that redshirt freshman Keanu Hill made, dragging about three defenders with him for extra yardage. I would expect Brayden Cosper to get some reps as well. Can I just say that Dax Milne’s performance (9 catches for 184 yards and 3 TDs) really blew my mind? Milne has graduated from “solid” to “spectacular” and other teams will take notice. Texas State will definitely scheme to slow him down. So Wilson needs to continue to read defenses and find the right guy who is open.
4. Zach Wilson and the Heisman
4. What will Zach Wilson need to do to stay near the top of the Heisman discussion when all the other conferences are back to playing games?
DICKSON: So we can all agree that 2020 has been a pretty weird year for college football, right? I would like to think that even if every team was playing that Wilson would be getting some publicity because his numbers are so good. Then again, if everyone was playing he would have faced four Power 5 teams in the first month of the season and his numbers wouldn’t have been nearly as video-game like.
So back to reality. Wilson isn’t going to face a lot of defenses this year that will cause him a lot of problems. Maybe Boise State and San Diego State, but I have to believe BYU will be able to move the ball in both of those matchups. His numbers will be great but winning the Heisman is more than just numbers. Without an opportunity to face a P5 team, Wilson will likely fall behind players from higher profile programs. Still, it would be nice if Wilson could get an invite to the ceremony in New York.
LLOYD: Let’s start with the obvious one: Win. The Heisman Trophy isn’t as much about great individual performance as it is about being great on a team that is playing at a high level. Second, he has to have a big game against Boise State (and probably one against San Diego State as well, although that one might be too late in the year). National recognition goes to athletes who perform under the brightest spotlight, like Ty Detmer did against Miami in 1990. Finally, he has to continue his amazingly-efficient ways. Interceptions can kill a QB’s Heisman chances, so he has to continue taking care of the football and making the right reads. I think all of those things are very doable and I expect him to be in the conversation all season.
5. Men's hoops lineup
5. What’s your way-too-early starting lineup for the BYU men’s basketball team?
LLOYD: This is such a fun challenge because so many of the Cougar players have been in the shadows of the 2019-20 senior class. I’m going to start with the three I believe are locks to start: Alex Barcello, Connor Harding and Matt Haarms. That gives me two spots to work with and I could see it going a variety of different ways. I’m going to say that Gavin Baxter will earn the No. 4 spot because his length and athleticism allow him to do a lot of things at both ends. While the final spot could be filled very differently if BYU wants to go big (maybe put Wyatt Lowell or Kolby Lee in) but I think Brandon Averette’s quickness will get him that last starting nod.
DICKSON: This is one of the deepest teams we’ve seen in Provo in a very long time. I believe we may see a variety of starting lineups in the preseason as Mark Pope and his coaching staff figure out which group can be most productive together. If you put a gun to my head (please don’t, I bruise easily) I would go with Alex Barcello, Brandon Averette, Connor Harding, Kolby Lee and Matt Haarms for Game 1.
But there are many different variations that Pope can use depending on matchups. Can you imagine a front line of the 7-foot-3 Haarms, 6-11 Richard Harward and 6-10 Wyatt Lowell (when he’s completely healthy?).
Speaking of Harward, he’s definitely good enough to earn a starting role. But the guy has a motor that won’t quit and I think he would be perfect coming off the bench to provide instant energy. Same with guys like Gideon George, Caleb Lohner and Gavin Baxter.
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