How are we already at the midway point of the BYU Cougars’ 2015 college football season? We wait all summer to get football back and in the blink of an eye we are already halfway through the season. Sad reality when it comes to the greatest sport in the land, it just goes too fast.
Speaking of fast, BYU had a fast start to the 2015 season as the Cougars had the entire nation buzzing after two Hail Mary victories against Nebraska and Boise State to vault into the Top 25 polls.
The Cougars then lost a pair of games to UCLA and Michigan, both of which are currently in the Top 25. BYU entered October at 2-2 after facing the nation’s toughest schedule through the first month. The identity of the team was still an unknown.
Now BYU is on a two-game winning streak with the most recent victory coming in thrilling fashion yet again via a Tanner Mangum game-winning drive against East Carolina.
Six games down, six regular season games to go. So what does the mid-term report card for the 2015 BYU team look like? Here are my positional grades for the Cougars after six games.
Taysom Hill entered the season as a sleeper Heisman candidate. Hill lasted one half against Nebraska before being sidelined for the remainder of the season with a Lisfranc injury. In that one half, Hill showed why he was considered to be a Heisman contender with his versatile play gashing the Cornhuskers through the air and on the ground.
Most teams would have a huge letdown trying to replace a talent like Hill, but the Cougars were already used to not having their No. 1 quarterback, as this was the third time in four years he suffered a season-ending injury.
In comes Tanner Mangum, an Elite 11 co-MVP with former Heisman winner Jameis Winston out of high school, and the true freshman has continued to improve every single week with the lone exception being the Michigan game. But who doesn’t get shutout by Michigan these days?
BYU has always had a long history of success at quarterback, and 2015 is no different. Hill was a superstar, but Mangum is no slouch and he continues to get better every week. Mangum has already led three game-winning drives in his first six appearances for the Cougars under center, and there’s a belief around the program that he could become one of the all-time greats over the next three and half years.
Running Backs: C
Losing Jamaal Williams (withdrew from school) before the season looked to be a significant blow to the running game for BYU, and through six games, the Cougars have often wondered where they would be right now if the one they call the “Swag daddy” was leading the way. But the Cougars have managed with Adam Hine, Algernon Brown and Francis Bernard all contributing in different games this season. Still, the Cougars have average running backs at best. There’s a reason Mangum is already airing it out with 40-plus times a game, it’s because BYU doesn’t have game-changers in the backfield.
Wide Receivers: B+
“The Bomb Squad” is what the BYU receiving unit likes to call themselves, and through six games the receivers have been airing it out with Mangum now as the signal-caller.
Devon Blackmon leads the team with 342 yards, but senior Mitch Mathews has hauled in touchdowns in every game thus far, including the Hail Mary against Nebraska in the opener.
BYU has seven receivers right now that the team feels confident can make plays at any time. Only concern with this group is their physicality. Michigan dominated BYU at the line of scrimmage leading to wide receivers coach Guy Holliday questioning his guys’ attitude and effort. They’ve since responded well and they probably won’t see a secondary like Michigan’s the rest of the year.
Tight Ends: Incomplete
BYU hasn’t had a traditional tight end haul in a catch this season. I say traditional because inside receiver Terenn Houk is kind of a tight end in this offense, but he’s never putting his hand in the dirt. Tanner Balderee and Bryan Sampson are the “traditional tight ends,” but they don’t factor at all into the passing game, and nor will they in the near future. Needless to say, former BYU star Dennis Pitta isn’t coming through that door anytime soon.
Offensive Line: C
Not great, but BYU’s offensive line is trending in the right direction. The front line has given up 21 sacks, but a good number of those fall on Mangum, who at times has had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long.
The grade would be higher had it not been for the Michigan game where BYU’s line was dominated. Yes, I know Michigan is dominating everyone these days, but it was an eye opener for where BYU is currently at in the trenches. BYU also lacks quality depth up front.
Defensive Line: B
Senior DE Bronson Kaufusi has had his most dominating season yet. The strength & conditioning program with newly hired coach Frank Wintrich has had a noticeable impact on Kaufusi, who has been winning numerous 1-on-1 battles this season. Kaufusi has showed a better motor this season as well.
Travis Tuiloma is the heart of the defensive line at nose tackle. He suffered a knee injury against Nebraska in the opener and finally returned this past week against East Carolina. Logan Taele did a serviceable job in place of Tuiloma, and Graham Rowley has been another solid contributor off the edge.
Under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, BYU has produced many great linebackers. Every year with a Mendenhall-led BYU team, you can always count on a deep and talented linebacker corps, and 2015 is no different.
Former Utah running back Harvey Langi is in his second year at linebacker for BYU and he has become one of the Cougars’ playmakers on defense. Fred Warner is BYU’s best backer in pass coverage, while Sione Takitaki might be the Cougars’ most effective pass rusher period.
Historically, this has always been a position of great concern for BYU fans. Cornerback has always been a position that for one reason or another has been cursed for BYU. In 2015, the cornerback position has been a pleasant surprise, and is heading in the right direction.
Michael Davis who has gone back and forth between wide receiver and cornerback during his BYU career, is settled in at boundary corner, and has had only one pass interference call on him this season. Field cornerback Micah Hannemann struggled in the first couple of weeks with tackling, but he has really improved his decision making on the field, while learning how to use his athleticism to his advantage in coverage. BYU has actually pressed the line of scrimmage the past two weeks. For anyone that’s watched at least one BYU football game over the last 40 years, you know that’s a remarkable feat.
Also, Michael Shelton has been a pleasant surprise as one of BYU’s best options in its nickel package.
Quietly, this position has been BYU’s best every single week throughout the first half of the season. Kai Nacua is one of the leaders of the defense, and has been near the top of the nation’s interception leaders with four on the season.
Michael Wadsworth was a player who surprised everyone with how he’s been playing this season. The Hawaii transfer was third string throughout fall camp, but rose up the depth chart leading up to the Nebraska game. He then proceeded to make the most of his playing time against the Cornhuskers, racking 3.5 sacks. The following week, Wadsworth earned the start at free safety versus Boise State and has been a tackling machine for BYU’s last line of defense.
The Cougars also have nice depth at this position with Eric Takenaka, Grant Jones and Matt Hadley.
Punter Jonny Linehan, aka “Jonny Rugby,” has been a fan favorite with his rugby style punts. Some of his punts have been beauties; others have made folks wonder if he should have stuck to rugby. Consistency will be the biggest thing for the former rugby national champion.
Trevor Samson is automatic within 45 yards but that’s the extent of his range in the kicking game. He can’t be relied outside 45 and it has led BYU’s offense to be more aggressive than years past, going for it often on fourth down.
The return game has been nearly non-existent this season. The longest kick return for BYU has been 29 yards against UConn. As far as punt returns go, there hasn’t been a single return worth talking about in this column. The return game needs to get better, and it’s the main reason for the overall specialists grade dropping.
A year ago, BYU fans were starting to grumble about Mendenhall’s performance as the head man. Another 8-5 season that had no signature wins left many wondering if Mendenhall’s best days were behind him. This season has been a step in the right direction for both the head coach and BYU as a program. Mendenhall’s presence as the defensive play-caller has led to significant improvements on that side of the ball compared to last season, and the team as a whole feels like it is in a good spot at 4-2 after facing on one of the nation’s toughest schedules through the first six weeks.
— Written by Mitch Harper, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Harper is the BYU reporter and insider for 1320 KFAN and co-host of "The Cougar Center" podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch_Harper.