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Independence, despite challenges, produced historic careers for BYU players

This past decade saw BYU football players achieve remarkable numbers, led by Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams.

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BYU’s quarterback Taysom Hill fights for yardage as BYU and Texas play Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, in Austin, Texas.

Deseret News

They still climbed historic lists of lofty records.

A decade of play as an independent remains a debatable BYU football move for some but it is remarkable how many top program performances took place since 2010 outside membership in the Mountain West Conference.

BYU left the Mountain West in 2010 to go it alone. Among the biggest challenges have been scheduling, recruiting and defeating rival Utah.

But that didn’t keep Bronco Mendenhall and Kalani Sitake from fielding players who became among the most productive in school history, and this from a program that dominated the Western Athletic Conference and joined TCU and Utah as the biggest forces in the Mountain West since its inception in 1999.

Swagdaddy, also known as Jamaal Williams and now with the Green Bay Packers, became the school’s all-time leading rusher with 3,998 yards and 35 touchdowns. He also became No. 5 in all-purpose yards in 2016.

Williams scored the most points ever in a game when he amassed 30 against Toledo on Oct. 30, 2016. On that day he gained more yards rushing (286) than any other Cougar.

Taysom Hill, who finished his NFL season Sunday with the New Orleans Saints in a playoff loss to Minnesota, had one of the most remarkable careers ever seen in the program because of his productivity after suffering four season-ending injuries. By the time he left in 2016, Hill climbed to No. 4 in total offense, No. 5 in rushing and No. 11 in passing. He also broke the record for number of plays at 684.

Cody Hoffman, an under-the-radar recruit from northern California, ended up as BYU’s all-time leading receiver and career leader in all-purpose yards at the end of 2013.

Kyle Van Noy, whose New England Patriots also lost over the weekend, became one of the most talented defensive players in Cougar history from 2010-2013. His antics in game-winning plays at Mississippi and the Poinsettia Bowl win over San Diego State became historic highlights. He finished his career No. 1 in tackles for loss, No. 5 in sacks, No. 1 in forced fumbles and No. 6 in solo tackles.

Mitch Mathews became No. 5 in receiving touchdowns, No. 12 in receptions and No. 14 in yards through 2015. His catch of a Hail Mary pass from Tanner Mangum to defeat Nebraska became part of school lore.

Safety Kai Nacua climbed to No. 4 in career interceptions and tied nine others with most picks in a game (3) against Boise State in October 2015. Bronson Kaufusi, the oldest son of legacy defensive lineman Steve Kaufusi, climbed to No. 4 in career sacks in his career (2012-2015).

Fred Warner, who was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November while playing middle linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, climbed to No. 5 in solo tackles in his Cougar career, which ended in 2017.  Dayan Ghanwoloku (2015-2019) became the No. 1 defensive player in fumble recoveries and Adam Hine (2011-2015) made it to No. 3 in kickoff return yardage. JD Falslev (2009-2013), now a coach at Dixie State University, ended his career at No. 5 in punt return yards.

In the kicking game, Trevor Samson (2013-2015) established the best field goal percentage in school history and Riley Stephenson (2009-2012) finished with the No. 4 all-time punting average.

Here’s my ranking of the five most significant games of the decade:

  1. BYU 24, No. 6 Wisconsin 21: This game, played in Madison 2018, was early in Jeff Grimes’ career as an OC. The 31-yard touchdown pass trick play from Aleva Hifo to Moroni Laulu-Pututau was stunning. But the most striking thing about the game was BYU’s defense holding Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor to one of his season-lowest rushing production numbers with 117 yards. A two-time unanimous All-American, Taylor’s 6,174 career yards is the most in FBS history by a junior.
  2. BYU 33, Nebraska 28: The season opener of 2015 in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln was unique because it was in Huskers territory. Taysom Hill got injured before halftime and Tanner Mangum, just two months off a mission to Chile, threw the game-winner on a Hail Mary to Mitch Mathews. Remarkable drama.
  3. BYU 41, Texas 7: Taysom Hill became a Longhorn symbolic specter of humiliation on Sept. 6, 2014. Wearing a knee brace, Hill made a sprinting leap over a Texas defender on a 30-yard TD run to open BYU’s scoring, and the eventual outcome of this lopsided game led to a shakeup of the Texas football program, ranked No. 25 on that day.
  4. BYU 30, No. 24 Southern Cal 27 (OT): This victory was a significant achievement for Kalani Sitake’s program in 2019 and helped set the foundation for a winning season. BYU’s defense intercepted USC quarterback Kedon Slovis three times to key this victory. At the time, it was one of the Pac-12’s most stunning defeats this season. 
  5. BYU 29, Tennessee 26 (2OT): This BYU victory in Knoxville came over a struggling Volunteers team loaded with back-to-back top recruiting classes. An eventual eight-win team, Tennessee lost this one on a Jake Oldroyd pressure-packed field goal set up by a remarkable read and throw by Zach Wilson to senior Micah Simon.