PROVO -- BYU coach LaVell Edwards and his staff are looking for a few good men. Maybe more, in the wake of another busy off-season of comings and goings.
As the Cougars open spring football practice Friday, weather permitting, there will be a number of established contributors conspicuously missing from the roster. Half of BYU's offense transferred to the Big Sky Conference (or so it seems) -- including star running back Ronney Jenkins. And offensive tackle John Tait, who left school after his junior season, could become a first-round NFL draft pick next month.Yet the news isn't all bad for the Cougars as they welcome a bevy of talented newcomers to camp. Highlighting the list of additions is Bret Engemann, a decorated quarterback out of Timpview High who signed with BYU three years ago; linebacker Jeff Holtry, a Michigan transfer with a national championship ring; and Jonathan Pittman, a former junior college All-America receiver.
For Edwards, who is entering his 28th campaign as BYU's head coach, that's all part of the fun of spring drills -- filling holes, grooming future stars and molding a championship-caliber squad.
"I like spring and the process of getting started again and getting the elements put together," Edwards said. "We're excited to get going."
The Cougars kick off spring practice Friday afternoon and will hold 12 practices and three scrimmages, culminating with the annual spring game March 27 at Cougar Stadium.
BYU, which finished the 1998 season with a 9-5 record, a Pacific Division championship and a Liberty Bowl defeat, lost four starters on offense and six on defense. In addition to Jenkins, who took his blazing speed, his 2,040 career rushing yards and 26 career touchdowns with him to Northern Arizona, a couple of key reserve players also made much-publicized treks out of town. Backup quarterback Drew Miller and receiver/kick returner Mike Rigell decided to enroll at the University of Montana.
But the biggest concern for BYU may be how to replace Tait, as well as fellow O-lineman Joe Wong. "We're trying to find a couple of tackles with John and Joe gone," Edwards said. Ricks College transfer Teag Whiting (6-foot-3, 285) will be vying for a starting job this spring. Guards Matt Johnson and John Skiba return as does center Jimmy Richards.
Other returning starters on offense include senior quarterback Kevin Feterik, tight end Tevita Ofahengaue and receiver Margin Hooks. With the emergence of pass-catcher Ben Horton, who showed big-play ability last season, and with the arrival of Pittman, expectations are running high at receiver. "We're anxious to see how our young wideouts come along," Edwards said.
An intriguing subplot this spring, as usual, will be at quarterback, where Engemann, Brandon Doman, Kevin Gilbride and Charlie Peterson will battle for the right to back up Feterik.
Junior Mahe steps into the role of featured back in Jenkins' absence and a strong supporting cast is on its way this fall. Jaron Dabney, the WAC freshman of the year in 1997, and a pair of highly touted prep running backs, Oregon's Luke Staley, and Granger High's Fahu Tahi, will report to campus in time for fall drills.
Defensively, middle linebacker Rob Morris, the anchor of the 1998 BYU 'D', one of the best in school history, is back. The Cougars are so deep on the front seven, Morris says the defense "will be even better next year." He is eager to play alongside Holtry, a former West High star who was a member of the 1997 national championship team at Michigan.
BYU will be without three of its top D-linemen, who graduated, but will still be strong at that position with Byron Frisch, Setema Gali, Hans Olsen and Chris Hoke.
A question mark hovers over the secondary. Brian Gray enjoyed a solid season in 1998 as he and Heshimu Robertson formed a formidable duo at cornerback. The Cougars are counting on Robertson to return to school after being suspended for Honor Code violations. At safety, starters Jason Walker and Chris Ellison have moved on, leaving the Cougars searching for replacements. Jared Lee, a cornerback from Ricks, will participate in spring drills.
Also up for grabs are the punting duties, vacated by J.D. Hartsfield. Owen Pochman will resume his role as placekicker.
Unlike Tait, Morris opted to remain at BYU after being tempted by the allure of the NFL. The 1998 Pacific Division defensive player of the year feels he has some unfinished business to take care of in Provo. "The main reason I decided to come back was I felt I had more to accomplish," he said. On his list of things to do: Earn his degree and win a league championship in the inaugural season for the Mountain West Conference.
Morris knows that the task of claiming a title begins in earnest this weekend. "Spring is a good time to see who's going to get it done next fall," he said. "For the guys coming back, it's kind of tough because there's no big game to look forward to after practice. But the new guys are out there proving themselves. There will be a lot of guys fighting for positions at a lot of different places. It's going to be an exciting spring ball."