PROVO — On the cusp of ushering in a new era in its football history, BYU opens fall camp this weekend.
In preparation for the Cougars' inaugural season of independence, players report Friday, and the first practice will be held Saturday afternoon.
No doubt, it's one of the most anticipated campaigns ever in Provo. While BYU no longer has a conference affiliation, it does boast an impressive television partnership with ESPN.
"I feel really grateful to be at BYU at this time," said senior running back Bryan Kariya. "It's great for our program and our school. I'm really happy I get to spend one year taking the independence ride."
Here are five questions to ponder as the Cougars head into fall camp:
1. How will the revamped coaching staff come together?
During the off-season, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall shook up his staff, promoting Doman to offensive coordinator, and hiring Ben Cahoon as receivers coach and Joe DuPaix as running backs coach. Both Cahoon and DuPaix are in the their first seasons on the staff.
Long-time assistant Lance Reynolds now oversees the tight ends, Kelly Poppinga was promoted to a full-time assistant spot coaching the outside linebackers, and Nick Howell has taken over the special teams.
That's a lot of change.
But Mendenhall, who will continue to serve as defensive coordinator, is confident that these changes will translate into significant improvement.
"I believe the program is capable of still more than has been accomplished the past six years and I would like to see visible signs of that — not every other year or every third year," Mendenhall said. "There's a renewed enthusiasm. What we've known that's got us to this point certainly has been acknowledged, but we're looking to press forward and do a better job than we've done in the past."
2. Can the Cougars build on their late-season momentum in 2010 and get off to a strong start?
BYU dropped four of its first five games in 2010. The Cougars can't afford to get off to a slow start this season.
BYU has the opportunity to make a splash from the outset and position itself for a big season with contests at Ole Miss and Texas, followed by home games against arch-rival Utah, Central Florida, and Utah State. All five of those September showdowns will be televised by the ESPN family of networks.
Last year, BYU had to replace a handful of stars on its roster. The Cougars are deeper, more experienced, and more confident, now.
"I feel like we have the weapons we need at every single position group to be one of the top offenses in the country," said Kariya. "On the defensive side of the ball, we have amazing athletes, guys that not only are talented, but work harder than anybody I've ever seen. We had question marks at some of the positions last year, and I don't see that anywhere, on our offense especially and on our team in general. Everyone on our team is working to prepare for this season and giving everything they have. I feel like there's a new attitude of hard work and determination this summer."
3. Will Jake Heaps continue to make big strides this fall?
The sophomore quarterback struggled as a true freshman early last season, but survived the refiner's fire, guiding the Cougars to six wins in their final eight games.
In the 52-24 rout of UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl, Heaps completed 25 of 34 passes for 264 yards and four touchdowns. Now the unquestioned starter and a leader of the Cougar offense, Heaps, who became the most prolific freshman QB in school history — and got married in June — has matured.
"He's only 20 years old, but he's been through a lot," said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "This environment for a quarterback will age a young man. He's had a good off-season. He's bigger, stronger and more physical looking. Last year he had a bit of a belly on him and he got rid of that. He's more mature. It's been quite a year for that kid. He's grown up a lot."
While Heaps is still learning, he's looking to put up huge numbers this season.
4. Can BYU fill the holes in the secondary?
The Cougars must replace three starters in the defensive secondary — safety Andrew Rich, and cornerbacks Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley. Only one starter, safety Travis Uale, returns.
Rich was a first-team All-Mountain West Conference performer last season, and the heart of BYU's defense. But Mendenhall believes he may have found Rich's heir apparent in sophomore Daniel Sorensen, who returned home from an LDS mission last winter and participated in spring drills.
"He's smart, he's fast, he's tough and he's a good tackler," Mendenhall said, adding that sophomore Jray Galea'i provides experience and depth.
At the other positions, junior Robbie Buckner and redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson will battle at field corner while senior Corby Eason and junior college transfer Preston Hadley are vying for time at boundary corner.
DeQuan Everett, a JC transfer who redshirted last season, should also be in the mix at cornerback.
5. Which newcomers will make an impact?
Two highly touted players who were sidelined last year are expected to be key contributors this fall — redshirt freshman wide receiver Ross Apo and junior linebacker Uona Kaveinga, a USC transfer.
Apo suffered a finger injury in practice early last season while Kaveinga had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules.
Apo and Heaps met when they were in high school and have developed a strong rapport. The 6-foot-3 wideout from Arlington, Tex., gives Heaps another tall, athletic target, along with 6-foot-4 sophomore Cody Hoffman.
Kaveinga earned the starting middle linebacker position during spring ball and became the leader of the BYU defense during the spring.
Meanwhile, there's true freshman Ryker Mathews, who is listed as a backup to Outland Trophy candidate Matt Reynolds at left tackle. Mathews, who prepped at American Fork High before enrolling at BYU last January, showed his upside during the spring and could see playing time this season if he doesn't redshirt.
And JC transfer Joe Sampson could be an X-factor in the defensive secondary, with the ability to play either safety and cornerback.