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College football preview: Cougars looking to execute, play loose

PROVO — As BYU’s starting quarterback, junior Tanner Mangum has a pretty good idea of what it’s going to take for the Cougars to have a successful 2017 season.

“We have high expectations for ourselves, high goals. I really believe the sky’s the limit for us,” he said. “It’s just up to us, if we want to execute. We have good talent, we have good players and we have a great coaching staff with good schemes. It’s up to us, and a lot of that falls on me. I recognize that as a quarterback. I need to take the responsibility of the offense to move the ball and put points on the board and put our team in a good position to win. That’s exciting for me. I like being able to have that potential. We’ve worked hard all offseason — the hardest I’ve ever worked — and I’m ready to go and put that on the field and I think everyone else is feeling the same way. … We’re all excited to see what we can do.”

BYU kicks off the season Aug. 26 at home against Portland State (1 p.m., ESPN).

Captions text here | photographer, Deseret News

Coach Kalani Sitake, who enters his second year at the helm, is looking to put his best players on the field and have them compete every week.

“I want our players to enjoy the process and enjoy the game. I think we play a lot better when we’re loose and having fun,” Sitake said. “I’ve been really impressed with the team. The leadership has been really good in camp. Like LaVell (Edwards) would say, I think we have a chance to be pretty good.”

The Cougars are expected to throw the ball more with Mangum, who’s confident running offensive coordinator Ty Detmer’s offense.

“At this point last year I was still struggling with understanding the offense as a whole. It’s complex. Now, it’s almost like second nature where I can go out there and I know what I’m doing,” Mangum said. “The game’s slowed down a lot because I know what I’m doing and I know where the guys are going to be. That helps a ton. I’m not the only one. As a whole offense, we’re much more comfortable and we’re able to expand things a little bit more. … That’s nice to know and nice to have that experience and confidence. It makes you play more loose.”

Ball security will be a factor, too. Last year, BYU forced six turnovers against Utah and lost. The Cougars forced five turnovers against Boise State and lost.

BYU returns four starters on the offensive line — center Tejan Koroma, left tackle Thomas Shoaf and guards Keyon Norman and Tuni Kanuch.

“Tejan, he’s in his fourth year. He’s a proven guy, a veteran. He’s the anchor of that line,” Mangum said. “It’s a good, reassuring feeling to have him leading the way. Then you have guys like Tuni and Keyon (and) young guys who are stepping up. That’s where it all starts. Having confidence in those guys is huge. They’ll do a good job for us, especially in the run game.”

Meanwhile, the Cougars are hoping playmakers emerge at running back, wide receiver and tight end.

As for the other side of the ball, in Ilaisa Tuiaki’s first year overseeing the defense, BYU ranked No. 2 nationally with 31 turnovers gained, No. 4 in interceptions (21), No. 9 in rushing defense (112.85 ypg) and No. 14 in scoring defense (19.5 ppg).

The Cougars are looking to build on that performance.

However, BYU's defense suffered a big blow a little more than a week before the season-opener when it announced Thursday that starting linebacker Francis Bernard will not play this season. Bernard is using his redshirt season for personal reasons.

Junior Adam Pulsipher, sophomore Johnny Tapusoa and senior Matt Hadley are among those projected to fill the void at outside linebacker.

The Cougars return several defensive starters — defensive linemen Corbin Kaufusi and Kesni Tausinga; linebackers Fred Warner and Butch Pau’u; safety Micah Hannemann and cornerbacks Troy Warner and Dayan Ghanwoloku.

Sione Takitaki’s return after sitting out last season will bolster the Cougar defensive line.

“I love that guy,” Kaufusi said of Takitaki. “I’m so happy we get him on the D-line because he brings such a great mentality and explosiveness. He’s a great player.”

The defensive tackle position features a lot of players vying to contribute. BYU should benefit from the late addition of freshman defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga, who has been cleared to play.

“I think he’ll be a factor for us in the first game,” Sitake said of Tonga.

With the return of the three specialists — place-kicker Rhett Almond, punter Jonny Linehan and snapper Matt Foley — BYU special teams coordinator Ed Lamb feels good about the special teams.

“That’s the core of it. The other core piece of special teams is guys who want to do it,” Lamb said. “BYU is blessed to have that type of personnel. We’ve got maybe half of this team, or more, that grew up wanting to be Cougars.”

"That’s a good, experienced group," Sitake said of the specialists.

Sitake said Tanner Jacobson will likely handle punt returns while Jonah Trinnaman and Aleva Hifo could return kickoffs.