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WAC FOOTBALL MEETINGS: Y. DEFENSE IS ONLY ISSUE FOR FAVORITES

SHARE WAC FOOTBALL MEETINGS: Y. DEFENSE IS ONLY ISSUE FOR FAVORITES

For a coach whose team has been tabbed a big favorite to win its second consecutive conference championship; whose team is a fixture in preseason Top 20 polls; whose quarterback is a genuine Heisman Trophy candidate; BYU's LaVell Edwards wasn't exactly bubbling with confidence at last weekend's Western Athletic Conference media day.

"I think we have a chance to have a good team . . . " he began, in a tone of voice normally reserved for solemn occasions, such as funerals and tax audits. It's the standard opening line Edwards has used for 19 years, but then he's always been understated and cautious - not to mention successful (12 league championships, 165 career victories, etc.)."We have a chance to be a decent team," he says.

Decent?

To be sure, there are reasons for caution. While the offense looks like a million bucks, the defense is, as Edwards says, another story.

"We were very sound on defense for a number of years, but the last two or three years we haven't finished up the season playing the kind of defense we should," he said.

After a good start last year, the Cougars were shelled the second half of the season, giving up 30 or more points in five of their last six games - which is almost precisely what happened the previous season. The Cougars wound up allowing 404.6 yards and 26.6 points per game last year. Since then, three-fourths of the linebacking corps is gone. So is two-thirds of the defensive line and half of the secondary.

Defensive questions aside, it has been years since the Cougars began a season surrounded by such optimism. Most of it is based on the Return of Detmer - as advertised on posters - and his receivers, combined with BYU's strong showing last year, particularly against Penn State in the Holiday Bowl.

"We have a very experienced offensive unit," says Edwards.

Start with quarterback Ty Detmer, who set 11 NCAA records last year - as a sophomore - and is being touted this year for the Heisman. Then there is tight end Chris Smith, a preseason All-American. Take your pick at running back: Matt Bellini, Stacey Corley, Eric Mortensen, Peter Tuipulotu and Mike Salido are all experienced and talented. "Our running back situation is as good and deep as it's ever been," says Edwards.

The Cougs also return two of their top three wideouts, and four starters from an offensive line that runs 6-9, 6-8, 6-7, 6-6 and 6-3.

In short, most of the lead characters are back from a team that rolled up 540 yards and 40 points per game last year. They could be the most explosive offense at BYU since the Steve Young Band of 1983.

But the defense . . . . The Cougars will be faster in the front seven, but smaller. Linebacker Rocky Biegel is a star waiting to happen. Pete Harston is a fine tackle, but he had off-season back surgery. Rich Kaufusi will be one of the WAC's best tackles. Coverage in the secondary was too soft last season. There are job openings at free safety and noseguard. The Cougs also are shopping for a placekicker.

The Cougars should be more than decent. Anyway they better be, what with September games against Miami, Washington State and Oregon awaiting them.

Colorado State

Earle Bruce has been coaching 38 years, but even he is moved to say, "I don't think I've ever looked forward to a season as much as this one."

A year ago, Bruce took the Rams - who had won two games in the previous two seasons combined - and guided them to a 5-5-1 season - the second biggest turnaround in the country, with the third most difficult schedule in the country, with just 10 seniors on the team.

And Bruce has 17 returning starters from that team this season.

Among the returnees are several impact players: All-WAC running back Tony Alford (1,035 yards rushing last year); running back Todd Yert (624 yards); all-WAC guard John Laurita; cornerback Selwyn Jones (nine career interceptions); all-WAC punter Tim Luke; all-WAC noseguard Eric Schaller.

The Rams ranked second in turnover margin last season and 17th in rushing, and scored on 34 of 36 possessions inside the 10-yard line. They might be as strong or stronger than any WAC team in the trenches.

Despite the bright prospects, not everything is rosy. There is little experience at wide receiver, and the quarterback position is unsettled. Mike Gimenez replaced an injured Kevin Verdugo last year and won five games, but he ranked last in the WAC in pass efficiency. Verdugo is a better passer, but he underwent off-season shoulder surgery. "We have to get more out of that position," says Bruce.

Then there is the prospect of playing BYU, Hawaii, Air Force, Arizona State and Arkansas on the road. "We'll be a better team, but I don't know if our record will be any better because of our schedule," says Bruce.

New Mexico

There is a surprising amount of optimism in Albuquerque these days, all for a team that has won two games in each of the past two seasons. For the Lobos, there is losing - and then there is losing. Two years ago they were regularly routed. "Last year we became competitive," says Coach Mike Sheppard.

Competitive as in near-wins against the likes of Tulsa (35-33), Texas Tech (27-20), Florida (27-21) and Wyoming (24-23). In the last game of the season the Lobos beat previously unbeaten Fresno State 45-22.

"Last year we wanted to become competitive and a year ago we fulfilled that," says Sheppard, who is beginning his fourth year as the Lobo coach.

The Lobos should continue to improve. They return 14 starters, including three first-team all-WAC players - linebacker Nate Morris, defensive tackle John Bell, center Kurt Jensen - plus a pair of honors candidates in wideout Eric Morgan and quarterback Jeremy Leach.

Sheppard especially likes his defensive front seven. An inexperienced secondary is a big question. The defense, with some input from new defensive coordinator Greg Newhouse, a former assistant at Hawaii, will adopt some of Hawaii's aggressive tactics.

On offense, Andre Wooten could improve a poor running game (2.6 yards per carry last year). He rushed for 800 yards two years ago, but was academically ineligible last year.

Mostly the Lobos will rely on Leach, a junior who already has thrown for 5,559 yards, and Morgan, who caught 56 passes last year while playing in the shadow of Terrance Mathis.

Air Force

When the Falcons begin practice on Aug. 2, the first thing Coach Fisher DeBerry plans to do is show them a movie. "We put together a highlight film of the '80s to remind them of the guys who worked so hard to do good things for Falcon football," says DeBerry. "We want to maintain that momentum."

That will a tall order for the Falcons, who, against all odds, have produced five winning seasons in the last six years under DeBerry. The prospects for a fast start in the '90s aren't bright.

Only seven starters return this season, three on offense. All-world option quarterback Dee Dowis is gone. So is fullback Greg Johnson. "That's over 2,000 yards of offense right there," says DeBerry.

"This group is the youngest team we've had in a long, long time," says the coach.

To answer your first question, Ron Gray will replace Dowis. Gray, whose 4.4 speed makes him the team's fastest player, was temporarily converted to running back/kick returner last year for more playing time, and earned third-team All-American honors as a returner. Now he's the Falcon quarterback, but Jarvis Baker is running a close second for the job.

Elsewhere, the Falcons have fullback Rodney Lewis, who rushed for 1,063 yards last year. He'll run behind an offensive line that DeBerry describes as "the shortest we've ever had. Unbelieveably squatty."

The defense is anchored by inside linebackers Brian Hill (the team's leading tackler for two years) and J.T. Tokish, who has been moved from the outside, and All-WAC cornerback Eric Faison. DeBerry is touting two newcomers in linebacker Virgil Simpson and cornerback Carlton McDonald.