The preseason fall practice session officially closed for BYU Tuesday. With its closing came the conclusion of some of the story lines that were highlighted while many others will continue to play out into the next week of Ole Miss prep and even into the start of the season.
The preseason didn’t see as many things that needed to be sorted out as most years. The team returned a lot of the starters from a season ago, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
“You look around and everyone is back,” said running back JJ Di Luigi. “It’s good having everyone back, or almost everyone, so you can pick up where you left off, and that has definitely helped us throughout this practice session.”
There were some open spots this fall on offense, specifically at left guard, tight end and at fullback that players worked to fill. On defense, every defensive back position was open, along with one of the outside linebacker spots and some of the rotating options along the defensive line.
Although an official two-deep roster has yet to be released by coaches, practice observations and interviews with coaches have yielded a very good sense of who that roster will consist of.
So who helped themselves out most over the past two and a half weeks of practices?
Biggest mover on defense
Defensive players and coaches always complain about the media being focused just on the offense. In response, I’ll start with the defense here and specifically Kyle Van Noy.
While there was an open spot at outside linebacker when camp opened, that spot quickly closed. Within the first couple of days of practices, it became readily apparent that Van Noy had made huge strides from a season ago and even from the spring practice session.
“I’ve been impressed with the strides Kyle Van Noy has made this offseason and here in fall camp,” said head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “He’s a play-maker. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him, he’s put on weight, and I’ve been impressed.”
Van Noy has seen every single one of his reps with the first-team defense. When last year’s starter, Jameson Frazier, came back to practice after being injured, it was still Van Noy retaining his starting spot, playing opposite of Jordan Pendleton.
“I’ve just tried to stay humble, and helping the team is what I want more than anything,” said Van Noy. “Helping myself get better and get to be the best that I can helps this team. That’s what is important.”
Other standout performances on defense included Carter Mees at strong safety and Hebron Fangupo at defensive end. Mees beat out expected two-deeper Jray Galea’I for the backup position, while Fangupo established himself as a big contributor at defensive end.
“We have a bunch of nose tackles, so we’re really playing three nose tackles along our front most of the time,” said defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi. “Loni (Fangupo) is one of those guys we’ve moved outside, and I like what he’s done this fall. He’s someone who can really help us.”
Biggest mover on offense
This one is relatively easy. It’s Austin Holt.
Tight ends were still a mess of sophomores unable to separate themselves entering fall camp until Holt took the lead. I outlined the tight end battle last week, which has seen the former Bingham High Miner join with Marcus Mathews as the two lead options at the position.
A couple of real surprises came with receivers Rhen Brown and Dallin Cutler.
It’s been well-noted that BYU has trended toward towering receivers these days. This season, the wide-out position will showcase Cody Hoffman (6-foot-4) and Ross Apo (6-foot-3), but don’t forget about the short guys.
“Both Rhen Brown and Dallin Cutler have been able to make plays for us this fall,” said wide receivers coach Ben Cahoon. “They’re not as tall as some of the guys are, but they’re quick, they run good routes, they work hard and they can catch the ball.”
Cutler, in particular, closed out the practice session strong with several touchdown catches with the first-team offense.
“There’s a lot of trust this year, and I trust all of my receivers,” said quarterback Jake Heaps. “You can’t even compare last year’s team, where we were at least year to where we’re at this year at this time. There is a great sense of unity. When guys like Ross or Cody can’t go or aren’t in there, you have guys like Dallin Cutler and Rhen Brown stepping up to make plays, and that is what you want.”
That sense of unity, which has translated into execution far ahead of last year’s curve, allowed Mendenhall to close fall camp early. “I like where we’re at right now as a team,” summed up the Cougar head coach.