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BYU hopes new recruits can make splash

Coming off a sluggish season, BYU is hopeful that a handful of the 21 players who signed with the football program this week will make a big splash next fall.

In recent years, several newcomers from both the high school and junior college ranks have seen playing time as Cougars in relatively short order. And the BYU coaching staff is counting on that same kind of production from mem-bers of the 1998 group.The candidates who are likely to make an impact right away are receivers and corner backs, where talent is thin. "We're trying to fill in the gaps with these kids," said BYU recruiting coordinator Chris Pella.

Receiver Jonathan Pittman, a JC All-American at Long Beach City College, broke school records with 59 receptions in a season, 215 yards in a game, 1,147 yards in a season and 1,330 career yards. A standout track athlete in high school, Pittman chose BYU over schools like Washington State, Oregon, Missouri and USC and will give the Cougars a deep threat.

Speaking of speed, corner back Jernaro Gilford holds the L.A. city record in the 800 meters and ran back an interception 101 yards for a touchdown in his first varsity high school game. Eugene Childs, a high school teammate of Gilford, is another speedster who caught 38 passes for 893 yards last season. And Michael Westbrook is a USA Today honorable mention prep All-American, registering 55 catches for 1,006 yards, including a last-second touchdown in the state championship game.

Corner back Brian Gray is headed to BYU via a familiar pipeline: El Camino JC, which produced Omarr Morgan. An honorable mention JC All-American, Gray played strong safety as a freshman and corner back as a sophomore, and he will probably see a lot of action as a nickelback in BYU's defensive package. "He's a big, good athlete," said Pella. "He's very physical against the run and he's a good cover guy."

Meanwhile, Junior (Reno) Mahe from Brighton High, and East's Sione Havili, the state's two marquee prep players, should give the Cougar running game a boost. "Mahe is one of those kids where you blink and he's 10 yards up the field," Pella said.

BYU is looking for help at tight end and inked two high school pros-pects in Spencer Abney and Nathan Wente. Pella said the 6-foot-7 Wente, who caught 43 passes for 810 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1997, is "a Chad Lewis, Itula Mili type guy." Fullback T.J. Sitake could fit in at tight end mix as well.

The Cougars also signed six offensive linemen, including Spring-ville High's Isaac Herring and JC transfer Ford Poston. With tackle Eric Bateman leaving for the NFL and others, like promising sophomore Ben Archibald, who departed for a mission, it's a position BYU needs to shore up. "We would have liked to sign more (linemen)," said offensive line coach Roger French.

"We feel good about the kids coming in. Of course, it depends on how hard they work once they get here."

The Cougars begin spring practices on March 6, with the annual spring game set for March 28. BYU opens the 1998 season at Alabama on Sept. 5.