NCF Nation: JJ DiLuigi

Opening camp: BYU

August, 5, 2011
BYU opens camp Saturday. Let us take a look at three burning questions:

1. Can the Cougars be a national player? BYU ended the season on a hot streak and brings back nearly everybody on offense. There has been a shift in philosophy with new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. Everybody expects Jake Heaps to be infinitely better this season than he was last. Now BYU has the perfect opportunity to prove all that on a national stage in Year 1 as an independent. The season starts with games at Ole Miss and Texas, then home games against Utah and UCF. Plenty of opportunity to grab some headlines early.

2. Who gets the ball? I mentioned Heaps above -- now who does he get the ball to? BYU has a wealth of riches at the skill positions. JJ DiLuigi, Bryan Kariya and Josh Quezada all return in the backfield; Cody Hoffman and McKay Jacobson return at receiver. Add in highly touted receiver Ross Apo and tight end Devin Mahina, and you have got plenty of options to get this offense back to what is expected with the Cougars.

3. Leaders on defense. BYU loses six starters from its defense, but there are plenty of talented players ready to fill in. Linebacker Jordan Pendleton is back and healthy after sitting out a chunk of last season with a knee injury and has stepped into a leadership role. Tackle Romey Fuga returns from an injury as well, and safety Travis Uale is back. There are big losses, though. The top three tacklers from last season are gone. Coach Bronco Mendenhall hopes to replace Andrew Rich with Daniel Sorensen and Shane Hunter with Uona Kaveinga. Both had impressive springs and could make this unit even better.

BYU spring wrap

May, 10, 2011
2010 overall record: 7-6

2010 conference record: 5-3 MWC

Returning starters

Offense: 10, defense 8, punter/kicker 1

Top returners

QB Jake Heaps, WR Cody Hoffman, OT Matt Reynolds, LB Brandon Ogletree

Key losses

S Andrew Rich, LB Shane Hunter, LB Jadon Wagner, K Mitch Payne

2010 statistical leaders (* denotes returners)

Rushing: JJ DiLuigi* (917 yards, 8 TDs)

Passing: Heaps* (219-of-383 for 2,316 yards, 15 TDs, 9 INTs)

Receiving: Hoffman* (527 yards, 7 TDs)

Tackles: Rich (110)

Sacks: Vic So’oto* (five)

Interceptions: Rich (five)

Spring Answers

1. Heaps the man. There was no question or hesitation this spring. Even with a healthy Riley Nelson back, Heaps is the unquestioned starter at quarterback. That helped immensely not only with his development, but with his ability to lead the team.

2. Daniel Sorensen emerges. The big question on defense is who would step up to replace Andrew Rich, the team’s leading tackler, leader in interceptions and emotional leader as well. Sorensen returned from his mission and had a great spring, leaving coaches confident he has what it takes to step right in at safety.

3. Camaraderie. The Cougars struggled at the beginning of last season, but ended the year with wins in five of their final six games. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said his team picked up where it left last season off, and had a camaraderie, spirit and energy that led to the best spring in his tenure.

Fall Questions

1. Starter at right guard. That is the only position that isn’t solidified on offense going into fall camp. Among the contenders: Walter Kahaialii, Houston Reynolds and Marco Thorson. Offensive coordinator Brandon Doman didn’t rule out the possibility of playing true freshman Ryker Mathews at the position.

2. Independence. How is BYU going to do in its first season as an independent? The Cougars only have one championship to play for -- a national championship. Even then, they would have to go undefeated and hope for some help to get into that. With a tough schedule, how will the team stay motivated throughout the season for a berth into the Armed Forces Bowl?

3. High-flying offense? Everything is in place for the Cougars to return to their productive ways on offense. Doman says BYU may resemble the days of the 1980s and 1990s. Heaps has another year of experience, depth at receiver and running back and a solid offensive line. But will it all come together?
We saw a different BYU offense in the second half of the season, one that actually scored points, moved the ball and had one quarterback. The way the Cougars struggled early in 2010 was painful to watch at times, but here are three reasons they will be better from the start of 2011.

[+] EnlargeJake Heaps
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBYU hopes consistent play at quarterback from Jake Heaps will pay off in 2011.
1. Jake Heaps is the starter. No question waffling between Heaps and Riley Nelson severely hampered the way BYU played. The Cougars started 1-4 for the first time since 1973 and ranked No. 96 in the nation in total offense. They turned it around in the second half of the season and ended on a tear. Now, Heaps is firmly entrenched as the starter and has one year under his belt. He will be more comfortable in the offense, and BYU will have one true leader.

"The volume he received in spring ball was helpful for him with his reads," new BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said. "Quarterbacks are the last line of defense, and we gave him the ability to audible and change plays. By the time we're done with 29 practices in fall camp, he will be a wise and veteran guy."

2. Doman is in. BYU fans became increasingly disenchanted with offensive coordinator Robert Anae last season because of his questionable play calling and predictability on offense. Coach Bronco Mendenhall felt it was time for a fresh start for his offense, so he promoted Doman from quarterbacks coach. You can expect a return to a more BYU-traditional offense this season.

"As we launch forward, teams will consider us to be a West Coast offense," Doman said. "We will be under center more often, run play-action stuff that we’ll build into our passing game. That’s a skeleton of who we are. I think people will look at it and say this looks like BYU of the early '90s and '80s."

Heaps is your prototypical dropback passer, so expect to see three-, five- and seven-step drops in a progression-type offense. But BYU also has the ability to do no-huddle from the shotgun. Variability is the key, and so is being less predictable. With Doman in charge, you can expect something old-but-new from this offense.

3. Depth. The Cougars are loaded everywhere. At receiver, they have McKay Jacobson and Cody Hoffman back, and have high hopes for Ross Apo, whom Doman calls "as talented a receiver our school has ever had." The 6-foot-3, 202-pound Apo redshirted last season after injuring his finger and is expected to be a big-time contributor. At running back, JJ Di Luigi, Josh Quezada and Bryan Kariya all return. Di Luigi was the most consistent player on offense last season. Quezada really turned heads this spring with his ability to run and catch out of the backfield. "He showed he's going to be a bona fide running back in this program." The offensive line returns four starters, including All-America candidate Matt Reynolds at tackle. There also are potential young contributors in Houston Reynolds, Matt's younger brother, and highly touted freshman Ryker Matthews.

Reason for optimism at BYU

April, 14, 2011
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall generally shies away from using the word “best” to describe anything. But he couldn’t help himself when asked about how his team fared this spring.

“If we’re looking for adjectives to describe who they are, this team loves to compete, they love to have fun they’re very talented and we have more depth in the six years that I’ve been the coach here,” Mendenhall said in a phone interview Thursday.

Bronco Mendenhall
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireBronco Mendenhall said the Cougars have had "the best spring" of his tenure as coach.
“I would say it’s been the best spring not only from the standpoint of what we got accomplished but possibly where our team is coming out of spring. I’m very optimistic.”

There is plenty of reason for optimism as BYU begins its first season as an independent. The Cougars return 19 starters and have a much more solid foundation today than at this time last season. They also have an identity, something that was missing going into 2010. Part of the reason is because Mendenhall was undecided on his starting quarterback, and played both Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson.

The team struggled to a 2-5 start before closing on a big-time tear and dominating UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl. Mendenhall revamped his coaching staff in the offseason, promoting Brandon Doman to offensive coordinator while deciding to stay on as defensive coordinator after assuming that role midway through last season.

Just as important, Heaps is the definitive starter at quarterback. He and his young teammates are simply more mature.

“We were all disappointed the season was over after our bowl game because we were making progress,” Mendenhall said. “I was hopeful to see that same thing happen in spring practice and that happened. We didn’t lose ground. We picked up where we left off. I was really happy they were so anxious to compete with each other and the fun they were having -- sometimes spring isn’t a time to bring out a heightened sense of competition but that’s the way it went.”

Indeed, the spring game last week went into overtime. After Nelson ran for a score and hit Bryan Sampson for the 2-point conversion, the winning White team carried its coach for the game, Paul Tidwell, off the field.

That speaks to the competitiveness, and BYU is going to need that as it faces a tough opening stretch with games against Ole Miss, Texas and Utah. The biggest holes to fill are on defense, where safety Andrew Rich is gone. Rich led the team in tackles, interceptions, pass breakups and forced fumbles last season and was named AllMWC first team.

But the Cougars feel they have somebody to step right in and make an impact. Daniel Sorensen has returned from his mission and had a nice spring. USC transfer Uona Kaveinga is penciled in to start at middle linebacker and also flashed during the spring.

The front seven is the unquestioned strength of the defense, with talent and depth. Defensive tackle Romney Fuga missed the spring as he rehabbed from a knee injury but is expected to return along with Eathyn Manumaleuna, Matt Putnam and Jordan Richardson.

Offensively, BYU got a boost when tackle Matt Reynolds decided to return to school instead of leaving for the NFL. The running back group is deep with Bryan Kariya, JJ DiLuigi and Josh Quezada, and so are the receivers with Cody Hoffman, McKay Jacobson and Ross Apo.

“As we finished last year’s season, that identity has formed the basis for what they see going forward,” Mendenhall said. “It took a lot of seasoning to get to that point. That’s why we’ll play with a clearer sense of resolve and identity than we had.”

Season wrap-up: BYU

December, 20, 2010
My, oh, my what an end to the season for the Cougars. Back in October, many left them for dead after a 2-5 start, featuring an anemic offense and a shaky defense. But BYU (7-6, 5-3 MWC) played one of the most difficult stretches to open the season, and had to do it with a true freshman in Jake Heaps first rotating snaps and then taking over as the starter.

After losing to TCU on Oct. 16, the schedule lightened considerably and BYU responded. The Cougars closed out the season with wins in five of their final six games -- and probably should have beaten Utah to end the regular season. Heaps showed growth, coach Bronco Mendenhall proved to be a terrific defensive coordinator and BYU moves on to the land of independence with serious momentum after an all-around terrific performance against UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl.

This was not the best season in BYU history, but it was one that showed the true heart, soul and grit of a team clawing its way back to respectability. Mendenhall reiterated throughout the season that this was his most gratifying in six years as a coach. It is easy to see why after watching his team rise from the doldrums to become a bowl champion.

Offensive MVP: RB JJ Di Luigi. For a big stretch of the season, he was the only playmaker to step up for the Cougars. Because of him, Mendenhall decided to change his offensive identity to be more of a power run team. Di Luigi ended up leading the team with 917 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, and added 45 catches for 443 yards and another score.

Defensive MVP: S Andrew Rich. BYU could not ask for a better defensive leader than Rich, who ended up leading the team with 111 tackles and five interceptions.

Turning point: Losing 31-16 at Utah State. The loss dropped BYU to 1-4 and was an embarrassment. So much so that Mendenhall fired defensive coordinator Jamie Hill and took over duties himself. BYU won its next game against San Diego State -- a critical victory that made the difference in the Cougars becoming bowl-eligible.

What’s next: Independence. Anybody who watched the New Mexico Bowl saw some serious talent returning for next season as BYU leaves the Mountain West. Heaps played the best game of his career, throwing for 264 yards and four touchdowns. Cody Hoffman caught a career-high eight passes for 137 yards and three touchdowns in the New Mexico Bowl. Joshua Quezada, ran for 101 yards on 15 carries and one touchdown. The running back trio of Di Luigi, Bryan Kariya and Quezada all return next season. So does Ross Apo, a highly touted receiver who was limited this season after injuring his thumb. There will be some tough losses -- kicker Mitch Payne, Rich and linebacker Shane Hunter. Offensive tackle Matt Reynolds must also decide whether he wants to leave school for the NFL draft or return for his senior season. But BYU showed promise. Now the big question is how it will handle a difficult schedule that includes games at Ole Miss, Texas, Oregon State and Hawaii.

Instant Analysis: BYU 52, UTEP 24

December, 18, 2010
BYU dominated UTEP 52-24 in the New Mexico Bowl in the first bowl game of the season Saturday. Here is a quick analysis:

How the game was won: The BYU offense dominated. The Miners had no answer for freshman quarterback Jake Heaps, who has improved dramatically in the second half of the season. Heaps threw a New Mexico Bowl-record four touchdown passes, and BYU set a New Mexico Bowl record for points scored. UTEP also had no answer for the power run game, as JJ Di Luigi and Joshua Quezada dominated. Plenty of freshman Cougars showed bigtime promise in their last game as members of the Mountain West before going independent in 2011. BYU ended the season with wins in five of its final six games after a 2-5 start.

Turning point: Hard to pick one considering the game got out of hand early. But UTEP had a chance to cut the deficit to 14 points before the half and take momentum into the break. UTEP had the ball at the BYU 15 with 21 seconds to go. Kris Adams dropped a pass on the goal line. The Miners inched closer on their next two plays, and had the ball at the 3 with 4 seconds left. But Trevor Vittatoe overthrew Adams on a jump ball in the end zone, and UTEP trailed 31-10. BYU took the opening possession of the second half and drove 75 yards in 14 plays. Di Luigi scored from 1 yard out, and all of a sudden UTEP trailed by 28.

Stat of the game: Minus-5. First-quarter yards for UTEP.

Player of the game: Heaps, who else? Heaps went 25-of-34 for 264 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. In addition, he broke Ty Detmer's school record for touchdown passes in season by a freshman with 15. James Lark came on in relief of Heaps in the fourth quarter with the game in hand.

Second guessing: The first quarter was a nightmare for UTEP. It seemed as if the Miners were totally unprepared for the BYU blitz, and it cost them dearly. With Vittatoe hobbled because of an ankle injury, you figured BYU would bring pressure because of his immobility. UTEP had negative yards in the first quarter, while BYU racked up 143 yards and a 17-3 lead that UTEP could never overcome.

What BYU learned: The Cougars have a lot of young talent that matured and grew in the second half of the season. Heaps, Quezada, Cody Hoffman, Di Luigi and McKay Jacobson all return on offense. That sets them up very well going into 2011. Now they wait to see whether offensive tackle Matt Reynolds decides to come back to school or leave for the NFL draft.

What UTEP learned: The Miners played in their first bowl game since 2005 but could not snap out of the downward trend that plagued them in the second half of the season. You have to give Vittatoe credit for gutting out this year with torn ligaments in his ankle. He will have surgery Monday. UTEP loses many of its top players on offense, including Vittatoe, Donald Buckram and Adams so a rebuilding year could be in store.


New Mexico Bowl Keys

December, 17, 2010
You saw the preview and prediction, now here are three keys for BYU and UTEP in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday:

BYU (6-6)

1. Establish the run. JJ Di Luigi, Josh Quezada and Bryan Kariya have done a good job all season. The trio has combined for 16 of the team’s 20 rushing touchdowns. Now they have an opportunity to go out with a big game against a team ranked No. 90 against the run. Getting the running game going will help open up the play-action pass and get Jake Heaps into more manageable situations.

2. Heaps record watch. It has been an up-and-down year for the true freshman, who came in as one of the most highly touted quarterback prospects in the country. But he is the first freshman ever to start a bowl game for the Cougars in program history and is three touchdown passes away from breaking Ty Detmer’s school freshman record of 13. He has thrown for two or more touchdowns just three times this season.

3. Keep up the defensive pressure. BYU is a totally different unit with Bronco Mendenhall in charge of the defense. All of a sudden, teams are having a hard time scoring on the Cougars. They are playing more aggressive and more disciplined, and that is going to have to continue against the Miners.

UTEP (6-6)

1. Establish Kris Adams. He is the go-to guy for Trevor Vittatoe, and like a lot of players on the team, he has fought through injury. If UTEP can establish him as a deep threat, the Miners will be able to stretch the field and come up with the big plays they really need. Of course, much of this is predicated on how healthy Vittatoe is in this game.

2. Don’t make silly mistakes. UTEP has a negative turnover margin, and cannot afford to make many mistakes against a team that rarely makes them. If the Miners are going to have any chance at pulling the upset, they are going to have to play a near perfect game.

3. Get after Heaps. Easier said than done. The Miners are one of the worst teams in FBS when it comes to sacks, with only 14 this season. But they are going to have to get pressure on Heaps to get him off his rhythm and potentially force him into mistakes. Heaps has been much better at protecting the football in the second half of the season, but he still has some problems adjusting when teams blitz. If UTEP can disguise its fronts and coverages with a healthy mix of blitzes, the Miners have a chance.

BYU and UTEP are former WAC rivals who are meeting for the first time since 1998. But you could say both teams probably have different feelings about being here. The Cougars struggled to a 6-6 record after four straight seasons of 10 or more wins. UTEP is in its first bowl game since losing to Toledo in the GMAC Bowl in 2005. One interesting side note: UTEP coach Mike Price recruited BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall out of Snow College in the 1980s. Price coached his brother, Marty, but was unable to land Bronco, who went to Oregon State instead.

WHO TO WATCH: BYU RB J.J. DiLuigi. Thanks to struggles in the passing game, BYU is more of a power rushing team than it has been in a very long time. The reason the Cougars were able to switch gears is because of DiLuigi, who has 819 yards rushing and seven touchdowns this season. He also emerged as a threat in the passing game, leading the team with 422 yards receiving and a touchdown. UTEP will try to key in on him to put the game on the shoulders of freshman quarterback Jake Heaps, but the Miners have had problems slowing down the run all season.

WHAT TO WATCH: The health of UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe. Even though he owns just about every major career record in school history, Vittatoe has been a vastly different quarterback this season because he has struggled through various injuries. His ankle has been the biggest problem, and will require offseason surgery. But Vittatoe will keep his starting streak alive against BYU even though he is nowhere near 100 percent. Still, a gimpy Vittatoe gives UTEP a chance to win. Just how badly his ankle affects his mobility and ability to set his feet will be crucial.

WHY TO WATCH: BYU is going independent next season, so this is your first chance to catch a glimpse of the Cougars on ESPN, their future network home. Heaps looks like the quarterback of the future. BYU also has a potential first-round NFL draft pick on the offensive line in left tackle Matt Reynolds, who must decide whether to leave school early to enter the draft or return for his senior season. Reynolds has said he will mull that decision after the bowl game.

PREDICTION: BYU 30, UTEP 13. The Cougars are better defensively, and enter on a bit of a hot streak, having won four of their final five games. They nearly upset Utah in the season finale. UTEP has lost five of its last six, and a hobbled Vittatoe is going to hurt the Miners. Another fun fact to remember: UTEP has not won a bowl game since 1967.
The education of BYU quarterback Jake Heaps has been quite an adventure to say the least.

First he started the season rotating snaps with Riley Nelson. Then he got the starting job when Nelson hurt his shoulder against Florida State. His first few starts were not so excellent: a 1-3 record, with zero touchdowns and five interceptions.

[+] EnlargeJake Heaps
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesBYU averaged 37 points per game in Jake Heaps' last five starts.
Heaps was not alone when it came to struggling. But at BYU the focus is on the quarterback, fairly or unfairly. True freshmen are not expected to become Heisman Trophy candidates right from the start, but his inconsistency was painful to watch at times.

Through seven games, the Cougars had a herky-jerky offense with few playmakers and a 2-5 record that left them teetering on the brink of getting left out of a bowl game. They had transformed themselves into a power rushing team, a foreign concept to a program so used to churning out NFL quarterbacks.

But that run game helped ease the pressure off Heaps. Of course, it helped that BYU was about to enter the softest part of its schedule; He faced three bowl teams in his first four starts, but just one bowl team in his final five starts.

The improvement has been steady. In his final five starts of the season, Heaps has thrown 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. His passing yards average (215) and completion percentage (61.6) in those five starts were better than his averages in his first four starts (118 yards per game, 54.6 completion percentage). BYU went from averaging 14 points in his first four starts to 37 points in his last five starts.

“Everybody wants to think they can come in right away and be an All-Star from the first play they play but it’s a reality that sometimes it’s going to take a little bit longer than you’d like it to,” Heaps said in a phone interview. “I know what I am capable of, and I still have a lot to grow. I’m not done growing and I’m not done progressing.

“Playing quarterback at BYU is a special opportunity and I’ve been blessed and fortunate. You’re going to have some times where not everything is going right, but you have to keep your head up and keep swinging.”

How Heaps performs in the New Mexico Bowl on Saturday against UTEP could go a long way toward helping his momentum headed into next season. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said last week that Heaps would go into the spring with an edge to start at quarterback, but expects to open the competition up once again with the return of Nelson.

If this season taught Mendenhall anything, it is how disastrous the results can be when you waffle on a starting quarterback. The rotation of Nelson and Heaps hurt BYU because team chemistry and rhythm suffered badly.

No playmakers emerged at receiver until much later in the season. The biggest help Heaps got was from running back J.J. DiLuigi, who led the team in rushing and receiving.

So it is difficult to believe Mendenhall would want to go that route again, especially since the Cougars face a tough schedule in their first season as an independent. He cannot afford to have Heaps' growth stunted for a second straight season.

Plus, Heaps has gained the confidence of his teammates. DiLuigi said Heaps has developed into more of a leader and become more vocal, something the players needed to see out of their quarterback.

“This is a guy who out of high school had not lost very many games,” DiLuigi said. “To have to go through some losses in the beginning of the season really changed him. You notice a change in his work ethic and his leadership.”

Heaps has more learning ahead. The second half of the season only gave a small glimpse into his continuing education.