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5 things we learned about BYU football during the 2017 spring scrimmage

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BYU football held its spring scrimmage Saturday despite a rainy afternoon. (Photo by BYU Photo)

Optimism reigns supreme for BYU. The gloomy conditions brought on by a rainstorm at Saturday’s annual spring scrimmage didn’t mirror the feeling on the sidelines or in the locker room.

Several starters and experienced backups return on both sides of the ball. The Cougars are no longer working on overhauling an offense or defense. All of the basic framework is in place. Now the task is focusing on the details.

“We’re starting to settle in a lot more,” BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said. “We’re really comfortable with our team and our program. Last year, we were still trying to get to know everybody and, a year later, I think as a coaching staff we’ve earned basically the trust of the players.”

What can BYU fans expect to see when fall camp arrives? Here are some key developments that emerged from spring ball for the Cougars:

1. Tanner Mangum will elevate Ty Detmer’s offense this season

Sitting in the backseat and watching someone else drive the car is no longer required for Tanner Mangum. The junior has the keys to the offense this season. Now the question is whether or not Mangum can build on a strong freshman campaign and make the BYU passing game come alive.

Mangum already has showcased his potential when given a chance. He threw for 3,377 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 59.9 percent of his passes as a freshman.

On Saturday, Mangum totaled 101 yards on 7-of-9 passing in 7-on-7 drills. He later threw for 102 yards, three interceptions and a touchdown on 10-of-16 passing during the 11-on-11 portion of the scrimmage.

Throughout the spring, Mangum seemed comfortable in his own skin running the offense. He absorbed some valuable lessons while backing up Taysom Hill. His throws aren’t all perfect, but Mangum sees definite progress from where he was in the offense last season.

Everything from the footwork to the reads is ingrained into his muscle memory.

“The game slows down,” Mangum said. “You understand what you’re seeing. You understand coverages. You understand fronts. Having mastered the offense allows you to have more freedom. It allows you to be more creative and mix things up. Make some checks at the line. Call some audibles. Just because you know what you’re doing. You know what you have. That makes it fun.”

2. Squally Canada is emerging as a backfield leader

Following in the footsteps of Jamaal Williams isn’t easy. No running back accomplished more at BYU than Williams. He became the school’s all-time rushing leader with 3,901 career yards and also claimed a single-game rushing record last season after churning out 286 yards against Toledo.

Squally Canada is the favorite to emerge from a deep backfield and take over Williams’ spot as the primary back. Canada showed promise a year ago in his first full season at BYU. He made two starts and ran for 315 yards and two touchdowns on 74 carries.

Being in a position to take on a bigger role in the offense feels a little surreal to the junior.

“It’s different,” said Canada, who totaled 27 yards on four carries in the scrimmage. “I’m used to being the younger guy. I enjoy it. It comes with a lot of fun.”

Canada headlines a backfield also featuring K.J. Hall, Riley Burt, Trey Dye and Wisconsin transfer Ula Tolutau. With so many talented backs pushing to get on the field, Canada is trying to set himself apart with his work ethic.

He strives to be better in pass protection to take pressure off Mangum. He wants to carve out a niche as a runner who rattles defenders assigned to bring him down. Spring football, for him, is all about the bigger picture. He wants to keep the BYU run game from suffering a drop off in production now that Williams is gone.

“I want to make every rep perfect,” Canada said. “This is my third spring, so I should make every rep perfect. I’ve been in this offense before. I just want to make everything done the right way. I know it’s hard to be perfect, but I’ll try to be perfect.”

3. Tight ends will have a larger role in the offense

Restoring tight end to its former glory in BYU’s offense became one of Detmer’s goals in his debut season as offensive coordinator. It didn’t work out how Detmer envisioned, simply because the team lacked experienced options at tight end a year ago.

This year, the outlook is much brighter. Moroni Laulu-Pututau made the switch from receiver to tight end and could easily be a starter before fall camp is done. Laulu-Pututau totaled 277 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 27 catches a season ago.

He sees big things ahead both for himself at tight end and the rest of the BYU offense this fall.

“It’s ready to pop and we’re ready to get going,” Laulu-Pututau said. “The volcano is about to go. I think the chemistry is there and it’s going to be fun.”

The junior has good size and enough speed to be a real threat on slant routes and short crossing routes over the middle. Laulu-Pututau made the position switch because he saw a chance to take on an increased role in the offense beyond what he thought was possible for him at wide receiver.

“That’s what I live for, man,” Laulu-Pututau said. “I’ve been waiting for this. It’s like real estate, man. Timing is everything.”

Laulu-Pututau’s main competition will likely come from last year’s starter Tanner Balderree, Hunter Marshall and returned missionary Matt Bushman. Balderree totaled 156 yards and two touchdowns on 13 catches last season. Marshall had 66 yards and a touchdown on seven catches.

Bushman, who also plays baseball, had a strong showing in the spring scrimmage. He totaled 105 yards and two touchdowns on four catches in 11-on-11 competition – including a 65-yard catch and run.

4. Linebacker will be BYU’s biggest strength on defense

BYU has to replace some key playmakers from last season along the defensive line and in the secondary. Linebacker is a different story.

The Cougars return their three starting linebackers – Fred Warner, Butch Pau’u and Francis Bernard – from a year ago. The trio were BYU’s top three tacklers last season, combining for 249 tackles and 23 tackles for loss. Warner and Bernard were also tied for second in interceptions behind Kai Nacua, snagging three picks apiece, and combined for nine pass breakups.

Their experience has been critical in helping BYU’s defense progress rapidly through the spring. They have shown a continued knack for making plays on the ball and forcing turnovers. As Warner, Pau’u and Bernard go, so does the rest of the defense

“They’re making all the adjustments and they make the calls up front,” Sitake said. “Having those three back is huge for us.”

Warner recorded a sack during Saturday’s scrimmage and Pau’u had an interception.

5. Offensive line is bigger and stronger

Sitake inherited a lean offensive line built for a fast-tempo spread offense last season. That wasn’t going to work well in a more conventional pro-style attack. Now, a year later, definite progress is being made in beefing up both size and depth up front. Seven players weigh 300-plus pounds now, with Ului Lapuaho tipping the scales at 335 pounds.

The Cougars also have plenty of experience to draw on. Tejan Koroma and Keyan Norman started every game last season. Lapuaho was a full-time starter as a freshman and sophomore before suffering a season-ending injury in 2016. Thomas Shoaf moved into the starting lineup against West Virginia and made nine starts a year ago. Tuni Kanuch has made a total of 16 starts over the last two seasons.

It will prove critical. Mangum operates more as a traditional pro-style quarterback and is a scrambler versus a downfield running threat like Hill was in his prime. He will need a line that has enough size and strength to buy him extra time.

“We have a great o-line that I’m excited about,” Sitake said. “We’ve got some depth there. Not a lot of numbers, but I’m really, really happy with the guys (there). We feel like we have 12 (offensive) linemen we can work with.”

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