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BYU football: 5 things we know so far

Cougars 'feel ready' following fun but injury filled fall camp

PROVO — It's been a little more than two weeks since BYU opened fall camp, and there are a little less than two weeks before it squares off against national power Oklahoma in Arlington, Texas.

"I feel ready," quarterback Max Hall said after the completion of Saturday's scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium. "I actually told that to the team before we broke up. I said, 'Guys, we've got two weeks. Let's prepare like crazy, get ready and let's go down there and fight.' I think we have a good chance."

The Cougars debuted at No. 20 in the preseason Associated Press poll, which was released Saturday. The Sooners, who fell in last year's national championship game to Florida, checked in at No. 3.

"I like our team. I think they're confident," coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters. "I think they're progressing, with some questions, like there always are at fall camp."

Unfortunately for the Cougars, the spate of injuries has been the story of camp, especially at positions where they can ill afford them — on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary.

While questions remain at those positions, as fall camp nears its end, there are at least five things that we've learned so far about the 2009 Cougars ...

1. Football is fun again.

A year ago, BYU was a team with a target on its back. It was anointed as the BCS-buster of 2008, and the Cougars' "Quest for Perfection" slogan put a lot of pressure on them.

With expectations so high, football became a drudgery to the players and coaches.

During fall camp, BYU isn't carrying the weight of the BCS hopes on its shoulders.

"We have a team that likes to work and likes to compete," Mendenhall said. "We're all hungrier and more anxious to play. That's a good thing. At the end of last season, I didn't think we were eager to play. It was an endurance test. This is a lot more fun."

Defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen agreed, saying there's a marked difference in the approach this season. "Last year, it was like going to the office, getting a day of work in. We forgot that we're playing a game."

2. Manase Tonga is back and will help the BYU offense.

The senior fullback returned to the Cougars on Friday. He sat out last season after being ruled academically ineligible.

What Tonga offers the BYU offense is difficult to overstate.

"It was an interesting dynamic (Friday) when he was on the practice field," Mendenhall said. "All of the sudden, uncertain players were more certain. Players that maybe didn't have as much contact-courage became a little bolder. It's just an amazing thing to have the presence of an experienced player out there. I'm talking about on the field only. It was noticeable to me."

The importance of Tonga's return heightens, considering that the Cougars are breaking in a new offensive line. With Tonga, Harvey Unga and J.J. DiLuigi in the backfield, Hall has three backs he can rely on this season.

3. McKay Jacobson is a play-maker.

Jacobson was impressive as a freshman for the Cougars in 2006 and hasn't appeared to miss a beat after returning from his LDS mission last January. During BYU's annual trek up "Y" Mountain on the morning of the first day of fall camp, Jacobson was the first one to arrive.

"The kid is fast. He's got some wheels. I'm not going to be afraid to throw it up to him a couple of times," Hall said. "He's also really good coming out of his breaks. So it's going to be really hard to guard McKay one-on-one."

Though he missed spring drills due to a hamstring injury, Jacobson has made numerous big plays during fall camp, providing Hall with a deep threat.

Jacobson also will be the Cougars' primary kick returner.

4. The offense seems set on spreading the ball around.

A year ago, Hall frequently looked for Austin Collie, and as a result, Collie became the all-time leading receiver in school history and the nation's leader in receiving.

Collie departed to the NFL, and Hall said he will more fully utilize his offensive weapons in 2009. Hall has Jacobson, tight ends Dennis Pitta and Andrew George, and wide receivers O'Neill Chambers and Luke Ashworth, among others.

"That's what's going to make us good. I've got a lot of guys I'm going to throw to," Hall said. "The other day, I went 5-for-5 for a touchdown, to five different receivers. If I can spread the ball around like that, we'll be pretty good."

The way he has been playing and conducting himself during fall camp, Hall is looking every bit like a senior quarterback poised for a huge year.

5. BYU's defensive line should be fine.

During the summer, it looked as though the D-line could be in trouble as Ian Dulan and Russell Tialavea decided to serve LDS missions.

Dulan has left, but Tialavea, a veteran nose tackle, pushed back his mission call by one month so he can play in 2009. That's been a big boost for the defense.

He joins other returning starters, Jorgensen and Brett Denney. Romney Fuga returned from his mission this summer and will back up Tialavea while defensive end Matt Putnam will also contribute. Vic So'oto was moved from linebacker to the defensive line and has thrived at that position.

"All of the sudden, the defensive line is looking deeper than maybe what it's been in terms of the number of players that can rotate in," Mendenhall said. With a bevy of inexperienced cornerbacks, putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks will be crucial.

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com