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Kiper: 2002 season preview index

Mel Kiper Archive

Tuesday, March 8

Cougars, Utes to challenge Rams

Having already previewed Colorado State, here are shorter looks at the other seven schools in the Mountain West Conference: Air Force, BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah and Wyoming.

The Cougars are one of the favorites in the Mountain West, along with the Colorado State Rams and Utah Utes. Last year, coach Gary Crowton's first at the helm, the Cougars ran off 12 straight wins before being leveled by Hawaii 72-45. Then they lost to Louisville 28-10 in the Liberty Bowl. Before the Hawaii game, the Cougars received word that regardless of the outcome they had no chance of making it into the BCS. They were also without the services of injured standout RB Luke Staley for both of those games.

This year, instead of the maneuverability that former QB Brandon Doman provided, junior Bret Engemann will be a more traditional drop-back passer. In the future, highly publicized super blue-chip former prep star Ben Olson figures to work his way into the starting lineup. A 6-foot-5, 210-pound lefty, Olson was the No. 1 recruit in the country, according to recruiting expert Tom Lemming. This season, though, Olson might redshirt.

The key performer on offense, besides Engemann, will be sophomore RB Marcus Whalen. After redshirting last year, Whalen has become the Cougars feature back, bringing with him an electrifying style due to his ability to explode through the smallest of cracks in the line.

The primary targets for Engemann figure to be WR Reno Mahe and TE Spencer Nead, both seniors. Last year, Mahe was ninth in the nation with 91 catches for a 13.3-yard average and nine TDs. Nead, an exceptional talent and potential early-round NFL draft choice, should easily double his reception total from the 2001 campaign (22) when he played second fiddle to Doug Jolley.

On the offensive line, the Cougars already have suffered a key injury; standout RT Ben Archibald (broken leg) has been lost for the season. Three other senior starters return, with veteran LT Dustin Rykert the top returnee.

The Cougars have more depth and speed on defense than in the recent past. Under the direction of veteran defensive coordinator Ken Schmidt (12th year in that capacity at BYU), the Cougars are expected to unleash a number of sophisticated blitz packages, working out of both a 4-3 and 3-4 base. Cornerbacks and safeties will get after the QB in certain situations. Basically, the Cougars will be attacking from all angles.

While junior Ifo Poli is the veteran leader up front, sophomore Brady Poppinga (6-3, 250) has really stepped it up during preseason practice, winning the starting job at right defensive end. The converted linebacker is a high-energy performer. Looking to contribute at DT will be highly regarded juco transfer Scott Young (6-5, 300). An awesome physical talent, Young can do 38 bench-press reps at 225 pounds.

The Cougars have shifted personnel around to maximize things at linebacker. Junior Levi Madarieta has moved from safety to strongside LB, while junior Paul Walkenhorst takes over the mike-man spot after working on the weakside last season. Junior Colby Bockwoldt, with his 4.5 speed, is now a starter at OLB.

In the secondary, coaches were counting on athletically gifted junior Jernaro Gilford to be a shut-down corner who limits the effectiveness of opponents' top wideouts. But Gilford has yet to participate in preseason practice, still not 100 percent from the knee injury he sustained late last year against Hawaii. In his absence, juco transfers Chad Barney and James Allen have proven to be pleasant surprises.

The Cougars will have a chance to extract revenge from defeats the past two seasons when they take on Syracuse and Hawaii in Provo to begin the 2002 campaign. And interestingly enough, they won't be playing a home Saturday game until UNLV comes to LaVell Edwards Stadium on Oct. 19.

The Utes are one of the favorites in the Mountain West (along with Colorado State and BYU), and they have an opportunity to make a statement nationally when they travel to Arizona and Michigan in pivotal nonconference matchups in September.

Even though coach Ron McBride has to deal with the graduation loss of productive RBs Dameon Hunter and Adam Tate, he's fortunate to have Marty Johnson back in the fold and off the injury list. The powerhouse 5-11, 225-pounder led the Utes with 95 yards rushing in the 2001 opener last year against Utah State before going down with a season-ending rib injury. Johnson is listed as a senior, but they hope that he'll regain another year of eligibility.

Junior QB Lance Rice continues to show improvement; in 2001 he completed 56 percent of his aerials while tossing 16 TDs and 11 interceptions. His primary targets will be seniors Josh Lyman and Devin Houston, although a player to watch could be Travis LaTendresse, a sophomore walk-on transfer who has shown ability. Senior Paris Jackson will be the No. 3 option, with LaTendresse the fourth wideout.

Super blue-chip senior LT Jordan Gross leads an offensive line that's anchored by another standout performer, junior Dustin McQuivey.

Everything appears to be in place for the Utes' defense to be smothering. The line is in great shape, led by senior DT Garrett Smith (13 tackles for loss last year) and junior DE Jason Kaufusi. The pass rush is critical, since this may have to cover up some of the potential problems at cornerback.

Senior OLB Sheldon Deckart led the Utes with 96 tackles last season and proved to be a destructive performer behind the line of scrimmage (six sacks and 13 tackles for loss).

The ringleader in the deep patrol and arguably the top pure safety in the country is super blue-chip junior Antwoine Sanders. This kid has it all: size (6-2, 198), speed (4.49), toughness and instincts. He's always in the right place at the right time, evidenced by his 78 tackles and four interceptions last season.

Out of necessity, junior Arnold Parker has been switched from SS to CB, with junior Dave Revill moving into the starting lineup at Parker's old spot. However, Parker has been sidelined of late because of an abdominal injury, forcing senior Cody Weight into the starting lineup. So you can see why CB is viewed as the Utes' major question mark on defense.

After a 2-4 start last season, coach Rocky Long's Lobos finished strong, winning four of their last five games while posting more than 50 points in victories over Air Force and New Mexico State.

The offense, which lacked consistency in 2001, could improve now that junior Casey Kelly has settled in as the starting QB. In the seven games he was under center last year, the Lobos were 5-2. While he completed just 47 percent of his passes and threw more interceptions (12) than TDs (8), Kelly brings the necessary versatility to the Lobos' attack.

He'll not only run the option but also has the chance to improve his passing numbers due to the experience under fire he gained last season as well as the return of blue-chip junior wideout Dwight Counter.

The concern offensively is twofold: First, Kelly must remain at full strength the entire way, since no other QB on the roster has ever taken a snap. Then there's the questionable running game. Talented redshirt freshman Dontrell Moore, who had emerged as the starter, is doubtful for the Aug. 24 opener at N.C. State due to a sprained MCL he sustained last week. This means that another redshirt freshman, Tony Frazier, will be heavily in the mix, although I'm told that senior Quincy Wright will start against N.C. State.

New Mexico's strength figures to be the defense. Seven starters return from a unit that has ranked in the top 20 in total defense the past two years. And sophomore Nick Speegle (6-5, 238) is a developing star. Last year, despite starting only three games, Speegle was fourth on the team in total tackles. It's too early to put him in the Brian Urlacher category, but he's certainly in the mold physically of the former Lobo star and has showcased All-American potential.

While the Lobos are on the upswing, an exhausting 13-game schedule presents a number of challenges. There are road trips to N.C. State, Air Force, UNLV, BYU and Colorado State as well as an intriguing nonconference matchup in Albuquerque against Texas Tech on Sept. 27.

New head coach Tom Craft returns to the Aztecs (he's their former offensive coordinator) hoping to rebuild a program that in the past was able to produce some high-profile performers; the key headliner was record-setting RB Marshall Faulk. Craft, who was an excellent starting QB with the Aztecs in the mid-'80s, did a great job directing the program at Palomar Junior College the past five years (42-15 record).

This season, for the Aztecs to improve on their 3-8 record of 2001, they'll have to compensate for several key graduation losses on the offensive line and develop a more efficient passing attack. Junior QB Adam Hall (6-3, 212) enjoyed an excellent spring, staying away from the costly mistakes that hurt the Aztecs last season.

The wide-receiving corps figures to be improved too. Senior J.R. Tolver appears to be primed for a big year, and an immediate impact is expected from senior Kassim Osgood, who sat out last year after transferring from Cal-Poly. An athletic 6-4, 210-pounder, Osgood has the ability to stretch things vertically.

At RB, 5-6 darter Michael Franklin, a redshirt freshman, has won the starting job. But senior James Truvillion and highly regarded freshman Fred Collins figure to be in the mix as well.

Defensively, seniors Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and Ryan Iata should be able to generate an outside pass rush. Standout sophomore MLB Kirk Morrison leads a linebacking corps with the necessary speed and ability. And the cornerbacks, senior Ricky Sharpe and junior Jeff Shoate, are solid and experienced.

The problem areas, however, figure to be at DT and safety, although a player to keep an eye on is sophomore SS Josh Dean, the son of former Aztec and Washington Redskin standout DB Vernon Dean.

Now that senior QB Jason Thomas is at full strength, no longer showing the lingering effects of shoulder surgery as he did last season, expect more velocity on his throws as well as the ability to challenge defenses with deeper aerials.

The spotlight, however, is on all the newcomers who could have a major impact on offense. That group includes RBs Deon Burnett and Larry Croom and juco transfer WR David Relf, who was Thomas' favorite target at the prep level.

Burnett comes to the Rebels from Washington State and Croom from Arizona. They join a talented and deep backfield. Senior Joe Haro is the UNLV's first returning 1,000-yard rusher since 1985. Sophomore Dominique Dorsey (5-6, 165) is an electrifying runner who averaged a remarkable 34.6 yards per kickoff return last season. At fullback is reliable senior Steven Costa.

While Relf and senior wideout Troy Mason figure prominently in the pass offense, also look for senior TE DeJhown Mandley to improve on his 16-catch performance of last season. The Rebels hope to get the tight end more involved in the attack.

Defensively, the Rebels took some key hits in graduation, losing pass-rushing DE Anton Palepoi, DT Ahmad Miller, FS Sam Brandon and CB Kevin Thomas. All four were selected in the 2002 NFL draft.

The strength of this restructured group is the linebacking corps, led by sophomore MLB Adam Seward, who figures to lead the Rebels in tackles.

Even though only three starters return on offense, expect coach Fisher DeBerry's well-conceived option attack -- which is almost impossible to copy in practice -- to once again cause some headaches for opponents.

Last year, the Falcons scored 30 or more points in seven games. To have similar success this season, new QB Chance Harridge must be consistent on a week-to-week basis. There is reason for optimism. Besides seeing action in five games last year, Harridge also enjoyed a very good spring, showcasing the necessary speed, strength, toughness and leadership ability. The big question, though, is whether he can throw the ball effectively enough to keep defenses honest.

Other key performers on offense include RBs Leotis Palmer and Tom Heier and junior OG Brett Heyser.

The Falcons have struggled on defense the past two years. In 2001, they finished seventh in the Mountain West in scoring defense, allowing an average of 32 points per game. The Falcons were just 4-3 last year when they scored more than 30 points -- evidence of problems on defense.

While the defensive line is a potential problem area, improvement is expected from the linebacking corps and secondary. In fact, this could be the best group of young linebackers Air Force has had in quite some time. The key headliner is blue-chip sophomore Anthony Schlegal (6-2, 244), who is without question one of the top linebackers in the country.

Also keep an eye on junior FS Jeff Overstreet. He was second in the Mountain West in tackles after the first four games of last season before going down with a high ankle sprain. Overstreet is viewed as one of the top safeties in Falcon history.

While the Cowboys suffered through a dismal 2-9 campaign in 2001, with closer inspection you will find that they were competitive in games against Texas A&M (28-20), New Mexico (30-29), Air Force (24-13) and BYU (41-34).

For coach Vic Koenning's squad to improve on that win total, they'll have to survive a physical season-opening contest against Tennessee in Nashville -- and in the process answer questions about a running game that is very much up in the air.

The Cowboys do have some talent at the other skill positions and also figure to have a very solid kicking game, highlighted by senior place-kicker J.D. Wallum. Last year he tied a school record with 20 field goals, missing only three attempts.

Junior QB Casey Bramlett (6-4, 222) can make things happen through the air waves with his strong arm. But without the necessary balance, opponents can generate plenty of pressure every time Bramlett drops back to throw. While he threw for over 3,000 yards, Bramlett completed just 52 percent of his passes while tossing 20 interceptions and nine TDs.

He has a few quality options to throw to in blue-chip junior Ryan McGuffey and junior Malcolm Floyd (6-5, 210), who is coming off a 53-catch performance in 2001. McGuffey, Floyd and seniors Scottie Vines and Brock Ralph all present matchup problems with their height advantage. Up front, the Cowboys have a pair of solid veteran bookends in Rob Kellerman and Adam Goldberg.

The defense, which was outmanned far too often last year, is relying heavily on players coming off the injury list. That group includes junior DT Brandon Casavan, their best defensive player, and senior MLB Herman White (shoulder surgery during the offseason) and versatile senior Jon Aimone. A juco influence should help the deep patrol, where sophomore SS Guy Tuell is one of the elite players at his position in the Mountain West Conference.

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