by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Several years ago, way back in 2006, we wrote one of our occasional “travelogue” pieces for this website, focusing upon a weekend jaunt to Reno to watch the Wolf Pack face Utah State. The trek to the foot of the Sierras was the second leg of a trip that included a stop in Vancouver. As we recall, we were bouncing all over the Pacific Northwest in that journey, with a long layover in the delightful (really!) Portland Airport on the way up to British Columbia, as mechanical problems delayed our connection to Vancouver until past midnight.

The trip, which included watching what would be a Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks team throttle the Canucks, 6-0, saw us come back through Seattle and Portland again before finally ending up in Reno, where we spent Friday night and watched the Wolf Pack’s first basketball game of that season, against Alaska-Anchorage. It was so long ago that Nick Fazekas was still playing center for Nevada.

The following day, we made the short journey from downtown, along Virginia Street, to nearby Mackay Stadium to watch the aforementioned Nevada-Utah State football game. It was hardly the most comfortable game we have ever witnessed in person, as a snowstorm hit Mackay before the end of the first half. We vividly recall watching the snow blowing sideways, so windy had it become in Reno.

The game ended up being all Wolf Pack, as Nevada rolled to a 42-0 win. We mention all of this because the Utag QB that day was a freshman lefty named Riley Nelson, who ended up finishing that season with 925 yards passing and 6 TD tosses, completing 55% of his throws, while rushing for another 290 yards.

And yep, that’s the same Riley Nelson who took snaps for BYU last year and will be back again for an encore...in 2012!

The explanation for Nelson’s endless college career is a lot easier than it might seem. Nelson, a devout LDS member, took advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed religious missionaries to take sabbaticals and not lose any athletic eligibility while they are away. This has long been a loophole used by BYU, often for its offensive linemen, who in many cases throughout the years have had two extra years to mature before returning to Provo to play some football.

Nelson, upon returning from his two-year mission that took him to Barcelona, Spain (nice choice on destinations, Riley!), transferred to BYU, which had been his original choice of school all along before family connections (his dad was a USU hoopster and his grandpa is former Utah State basketball HC Rod Tueller) originally sent him to Logan instead. Although he has seen action in all three of his seasons in Provo, Nelson was granted a medical redshirt for the 2010 campaign due to a season-ending shoulder injury suffered that September. Nelson had started the first three games of the 2010 season before going down.

Thus, we have the explanation for Nelson’s extended college career, which has spanned three different Speakers of the House (Hastert, Pelosi, and Boehner!) and will eventually cover seven seasons once the lefty takes a snap this fall.

The subject of Nelson, who wrested the starting job from then-soph Jake Heaps a year ago and proceeded to lead the Cougars on a hot run down the stretch and into the Armed Forces Bowl (where BYU beat Tulsa in a thriller), is a fascinating one and will be expanded upon a bit more in just a moment. In the meantime, there are other subjects to discuss regarding what figures to be a memorable autumn for BYU football.

No mention of the Cougars’ gridiron status would be complete without an update on BYU’s recent endeavor as a football independent, which enters its second season this fall. After having been bypassed by the Pac-12 for inclusion in its expanded league (which invited hated rival Utah instead), the Cougs bolted the Mountain West following the 2010-11 school year, believing the independent route was their best path going forward for the football program (other sports have affiliated with the West Coast Conference).

Television rights were one consideration for the school, which retains its own network, available in millions of homes across the country. Specifics regarding TV rights with the Mountain West were another bone of contention between BYU and its former league.

Still, the independent way continues to be subject to some serious review in Provo. Sources report that BYU AD Tom Holmoe has been lamenting about the problems the independent Cougs are confronting as they look to fill their schedules in upcoming years. Which is one reason why BYU continues to be a popular subject in conference realignment gossip.

Indeed, there were negotiations between the expansion-minded Big East and BYU late last year that were eventually tabled. The Provo school also remains a favorite subject regarding possible Big XII expansion, which several sources believe the Cougs could take very seriously if indeed the Big XII is going to be one of the surviving “power leagues” and would look to expand its membership to get to 16 members. Insiders have told us that BYU has long been on the Big XII radar.

As much as any school in the nation, BYU’s story regarding the conference shifts is as intriguing as it gets. Stay tuned for further developments.

In the meantime, some of those “further developments” this fall could include the Cougars making an unlikely emergence as a serious BCS contender and maybe even a wild longshot to sneak into the national title picture. Of course, BYU’s path to the BCS is hardly a clear one even if the Cougs should run the table. At the least, expect BYU to qualify for its eighth bowl (this year it would be the Poinsettia) in as many seasons for classy HC Bronco Mendenhall, who has brought stability and success to a program that had lost both in the immediate aftermath of longtime HC Lavell Edwards’ retirement twelve years ago. The program took several steps backwards for LaVell’s successor Gary Crowton before Mendenhall was promoted from the defensive coordinator position to succeed Crowton in 2005.

Bronco’s first move was a popular one, discarding the unsightly uniforms that coincided with Crowton’s appointment and outfitting the Cougs as they were during Edwards’ glory years, albeit with a slightly darker shade of blue than adorned LaVell’s teams. The return of the traditional uniform and helmet design coincided with a recovery of Cougar football fortunes under Mendenhall, whose teams have qualified for bowls every year since (BYU winning in five of the last six). Mendenhall has also fashioned ten-win seasons on five different occasions, not bad for a seven-year stint.

There is temptation to talk about QB Nelson before everything else in previewing this year’s BYU team, but if the Cougars indeed make the stealth run to the BCS that some beneath the Wasatch Range believe is possible, it will likely be due to an underrated stop unit that improved by leaps and bounds as last season progressed.

Mendenhall, who has also served as the team’s defensive coordinator since removing Jamie Hill from that position early in the 2010 season, retains a form of the unorthodox 3-3-5 defensive alignments that Bronco first learned at New Mexico when working under Rocky Long. BYU also employs more-basic 3-4 looks that will highlight a collection of rugged linebackers in Kyle Van Noy (left), Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveniga, all honors candidates and part of seven returning starters who form the core of the Cougar stop unit.

And the platoon could be even better than it was a year ago when it placed among the national leaders in total (ranked 13th at only 313 ypg) and scoring (ranked 20th at 20 ppg) defenses. As long, that is, it avoids injuries, which proved a bit problematic in spring when so many Cougs went down (including Van Noy and Ogletree) that Mendenhall had to scale back his scrimmaging. Fortunately, Mendenhall has indicated that none of those maladies should keep any key contributor out of action in the fall.

Up front, the Cougs figure to be robust again, especially with thick, run-stuffing NT Romney Fuga (right, all 321 pounds of him) anchoring the middle, and another rugged Polyneisan, Eathyn Manumaleuna, lining up beside him. Mendenhall might also have an ace up his sleeve in 6-6. 270-lb. Ghanian Ezekiel Ansah, a physical specimen who originally attended BYU on a track scholarship but has the physical tools to dominate at either DE or LB. Meanwhile, standout sr. CB Preston Hadley and jr. SS Daniel Sorenson are also a couple of potential postseason honors candidates.

We saved further mention of QB Nelson for some of our final comments, as it was Nelson’s emergence in the second half of the 2011 campaign that fueled the Cougs to wins in nine of their last ten games and caused the aforementioned former blue-chip recruit Heaps to transfer to Kansas after last season. The exciting Nelson, a “poor man’s Tim Tebow” as described by some regional sources, is a fearless playmaker who is still apt to take off and run from the pocket at the first opportunity, gaining 392 rush yards a year ago. But Mendenhall and o.c. Brandon Doman still believe Nelson can be an even more effective passer out of the Cougs’ West Coast offense after passing for 19 TDs and only 7 picks last season.

And Nelson, for what it’s worth, reportedly spent the offseason studying films of past BYU QB greats Virgil Carter, Giff Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahaon, and Steve Young as he looks to add some extra dimensions to the mix.

Nelson also has a unique feel for the game, never better illustrated than the last-minute drive to victory in the bowl win over Tulsa, which featured Nelson outfoxing the Golden Hurricanes when faking a spike and then tossing 2-yard TD pass to Cody Hoffman (right) with 11 seconds to play to net the winning score in the 24-21 thriller. The 6'4 Hoffman and another lanky target, 6'3 Ross Apo (who should be ready in the fall after sitting out spring drills due to shoulder surgery), combined for over 1400 yards worth of catches and 19 TDs last fall.

If there is a concern at QB, it’s behind Nelson, where there is little experienced depth. Unless emergency circumstances arise, expect touted frosh QB Tanner Mangum to be redshirted in the fall before likely taking over from Nelson in 2013.

Mendenhall also believes his infantry should improve in the fall despite the loss of mainstay RBs J.J. DeLuigi and Bryan Kariya to graduation. Mendenhall suggests that the new RB group is the fastest in memory at the school, with slashers Mike Alisa and Josh Quezada having hinted at breakouts in the past. A newcomer to watch could be speedy frosh RB Jamaal Williams, who starred as a prep in California (Fontana Summit High).

The special teams also look encouraging, with both kickers (PK Justin Sorenson & P Riley Stephenson) back in the fold, and with WR Hoffman an acknowledged homerun threat on kick returns (he took one back 93 yards for a TD last year).

The Cougs, as mentioned earlier, already have a postseason destination secured in the San Diego Poinsettia Bowl, where, ironically, BYU would be facing a Mountain West rep. But the Cougs are hoping for better than the Poinsettia. And the schedule is built for a BCS run, as the Cougs figure to have real chances in their toughest road games at Utah, rebuilding Boise State, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech. Win those, and the Cougs could indeed find themselves in the BCS mix.

Pointspread-wise, note that BYU roared down the stretch last season behind Nelson, covering its last seven games on the board. Mendenhall also enters 2012 having covered 14 of his last 18 vs. the number since late in the 2010 campaign.

Summary...We have been Riley Nelson fans ever since we saw him long, long ago as a frosh at Utah State in 2006. He’s a winner and able to raise the level of play from his teammates, as demonstrated down the stretch last season. We don’t expect Mendenhall to have any trouble steering the Coug edition at least to the Poinsettia Bowl and maybe much more. As long as Nelson stays healthy, the pieces are indeed in place on both sides of the line of scrimmage for BYU to be a stealth contender for BCS and national honors. Really!


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