2008 Spring Preview - Mountain West
Utah QB Brian Johnson
Utah QB Brian Johnson
Posted Mar 10, 2008

As spring ball gets rolling, here are the big questions, the most important positions and more for each Mountain West team in the CFN Spring Preview.

Spring Preview 2008

Mountain West Spring Football Previews

By John Harris
- 2007 Mountain West Spring Analysis
2008 Early Lookaheads - Mountain West
2008 Mountain West Insider Spring Questions & Answers

Air Force  Spring Practice Began:  March 4 Spring Game:  April 12
The early spring buzz ...
Head coach Troy Calhoun’s hiring in 2007 flew way under the radar, but perhaps no first year coach accomplished more in his first year.  The Falcons were plus-five in the win department and came within a whisker of winning the Armed Forces Bowl over Cal after getting up early.  So, where to go from here, Coach?  Expectations have been heightened given last year’s success, and the pressure on Calhoun will be more intense now that the success is supposed to continue.  Teams will have had all year to study the complexities inherent within the Air Force offense, so Calhoun and company won’t be sneaking up on anyone this fall.  The radar is focused squarely on Colorado Springs.
The big spring question is ...
Who can fill Chad Hall’s shoes?  The diminutive star averaged over 200 yards total offense per game last season and became the focal point of the offense by year’s end.  It’s imperative that the Falcons find a replacement for Hall in 2008 to take some pressure off of a first-time starter at quarterback.  Senior Ty Paffett is supposed to take over, but it’s asking a lot for him to do everything Hall did. Speaking of replacing a star … 
The most important position to watch is ...
Quarterback.  Four year starter quarterback Shaun Carney will graduate this spring leaving a gaping hole and a major battle to take over.  The decision making in Calhoun’s offense is of the utmost importance and Carney became a whiz by the end of the season.  Shea Smith is first on the depth chart and has the most experience, followed by Eric Herbort. A slew of young players, including a real, live pro-style passer in Nick Green, will get a shot at the gig.
Spring attitude... With only three starters returning on offense and five on defense, Calhoun and his staff have their hands full this spring.  The skill players on offense may not be a huge concern, few programs can plug in the cogs like this one, but there are huge holes.  Every spring practice will be vital to put the pieces in place.

BYU  Spring Practice Begins: March 17   Spring Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... Boise State in 2006.  Hawaii in 2007.  BYU in 2008?  Is it BYU’s turn at the BCS buffet table this season?  It’s become an annual ritual in college football that one of the non-BCS teams will make a run at a BCS bowl game, and BYU has the talent, the coaching, and the make up to do it.  The Cougars finished the season 11-2, including a narrow win over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl, and return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Max Hall and running back Harvey Unga.  So, the question becomes “is BYU ready to take that step?” Boise State took the step, as did Hawaii. There’s no reason to shoot for anything lower.
The big spring question is ... How will new defensive coordinator Jaime Hill replace three starting linebackers?  First team All-MWC linebacker Bryan Kehl, Kelly Poppinga and Markell Staffieri graduate from a defense that was tenth in the nation, and while BYU always seems to find productive players, losing these three will hurt.  Fortunately, one starter remains - David Nixon, who returns on the weakside, but the remaining holes must be filled by the time the Cougars finish spring practice. This is the one area that could keep this from being a special season.
The most important position to watch is ... Secondary.  The back four was nearly as decimated as the linebacking corps losing three starters and returning only free safety Kellen Fowler.  Whoever takes those positions will get some help from one of the best pass rushers in the league, Jan Jorgensen, but no unit will have a larger bullseye on it this season with so much inexperience.
Spring attitude... A team in this situation can go one of two ways.  The pressure can mount quickly and the team will crumble under the weight.  Or, the team can rise to the occasion on a weekly basis, winning games in different ways and sometimes earning an ugly W.  Both Boise State and Hawaii fell into the latter category (conference foe TCU fell into the former), but what does BYU do under the bright lights of expectation?  Can Bronco Mendenhall temper the expectations to keep the program from falling into the abyss?  Or, can the Cougars have a season to remember?  It goes without saying that it’ll be Mendenhall’s biggest test as head coach.

Colorado State  Spring Practice Begins: March 25    Spring Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ...
The Sonny Lubick era is over and while it was a great run, the program needed a change and a breath of fresh air.  New head coach Steve Fairchild is that kick-start and he’ll put his stamp on this program from day one.  After spending the last seven years in the NFL, Fairchild returns to Fort Collins where he was once Lubick’s quarterback coach and offensive coordinator.  As such, no Mountain West player, administrator or coach will be more in the spotlight.
The big spring question is ... Can Fairchild find a quarterback?  Three-year starter Caleb Hanie has graduated, and while he was inconsistent, he had his moments.  Or, putting a positive spin on the situation, Farichild has the opportunity to shape this team with his selection of the man under center.  Billy Farris is the only Ram quarterback who has thrown a pass in a game, but was injured for the last two games of the 2007 season.  Grant Stucker and Nick Neuenfeldt will enter the competition as well, but neither has played in a collegiate game.
The most important position to watch is ...
Defensive line.  The Rams lost 107 career starts in three seniors – Jesse Nading, Blake Smith and Erik Sandie.  Looking for able replacements for these three must be priority one on a defense that was 81st in the nation in total defense.  Add in the fact that the Rams were 107th in the nation, giving up 207.3 yards per game on the ground, and finding replacements for the line might be the most important goal for this entire program.
Spring attitude...
Miracles aren’t, and can’t be, expected, especially with a team that has to fill major holes in the defensive line and at quarterback.  However, a new voice and a clear vision will help the Rams take the next few steps.  Fairchild is the prodigal son who has returned home with plenty of experience to draw upon.  It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible, either, considering how little tweaking might need to be done.  This isn’t the SEC or the Pac-10, but it’s still the best non-BCS conference in the nation.

New Mexico  Spring Practice Begins: April 10   Spring Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ... The Lobos have won nine games or more only four times in school history:  1964, 1982, 1997, and last season.  So, on the heels of a big year and a New Mexico Bowl victory over Nevada, it’s imperative that the program builds on the success and gets in the hunt for the MWC Championship.  Head coach Rocky Long has established a solid program that has reached annual bowl status, and is typically one of the top four teams in the league, but it’s all about doing more. Long has already gone from point A to point B.
The big spring question is ...
Can Donovan Porterie keep progressing and improving playing behind four new offensive line starters?  The Lobos’ signal caller is one of the most talented players in this conference, accounting for over 3,000 yards passing, but he lost 80% of his line and his two star receivers.  Even though Porterie has plenty of experience, his patience and pocket presence will be tested, and now he has to make everyone around him better.  He’ll need a good spring session to gain some level of comfort behind his new line.
The most important position to watch is ...
Wide Receiver.  Senior Bowl attendee and All-MWC receiver Marcus Smith and fellow receiver Travis Brown exhausted their eligibility, creating a huge hole in the talent level.  Each receiver accounted for over 1,000 yards receiving and provided the perfect to a running offense.  Roland Bruno had 21 receptions in 2007 and should hold down one spot, but the other is wide open for competition.
Spring attitude... The Lobos followed each of the first three nine win seasons with three, six and three wins respectively; not exactly capitalizing on prior year success.  The 2008 Lobos can change that in a big way, but must find the offensive line to help protect Porterie to do just that.  With Porterie returning, along with All-MWC running back Rodney Ferguson, the Lobos have the backfield to push for a top three position. It’s time to make the jump.

San Diego State    Spring Practice Begins: March 25   Spring Game: April 26
The early spring buzz ... It might appear as though the past two years haven’t been fruitful for head coach Chuck Long with three wins in 2006 and four in 2007, but the Aztecs have shown some improvement, even if it hasn’t been noticeable. Is it enough to make it to seven wins and get to a bowl game?  A .500 record would be a nice start, and getting the heat off Long, which will build if this is another down year, would be a real plus.
The big spring question is ... How does offensive coordinator Del Miller fill four spots on the offensive line?  Although the loss of signal caller Kevin O’Connell will be a major problem, the more pressing issue will be up front of the O won’t progress.  On the plus side, it’s not like last year’s front five was that great. The running game wasn’t there and the pass protection was mediocre.  Speaking of a new quarterback…
The most important position to watch is ...
Quarterback.  Three-year starter O’Connell is out of eligibility after he carried the offense for long stretches. Two untested redshirt freshmen, Kelsey Sokolski and Ryan Lindley, will need to be ready early on, and Long made it a priority to find a JUCO QB who could come in and play right away.  Drew Westling could be the answer with the maturity to be the man, but at least there are a few options and Long can coach quarterbacks.
Spring attitude...
With so little experience on the offensive side of the ball, the defense must set a tone in the spring that it can carry this team on into the fall.  It’s a relatively young unit took its lumps in 2007, but returns seven starters this year.  The offense will need the spring to gel and find the right quarterback and a capable O line, while the defense needs to find some help up front and at the safety position.  However, the Aztecs have made nice strides the past couple of seasons; Long and his staff and should continue moving forward this spring even with the retooled lineup.

TCU     Spring Practice Begins: March 18   Spring Game: April 12
The early spring buzz ... The promising 2007 season that was supposed to be a storybook trip to the BCS turned into a nightmare which started before the season even began.  The Tommy Blake situation seemed to take the joy out of the season and the air out of a pre-season big bowl contender, and while there was a little bit of a rebound to win the Houston Bowl, it was still an overall downer.  Not to mention, Gary Patterson’s bunch didn’t even win the MWC Championship, so now the goal is to produce while flying in under the radar.  Seven wins won’t cut it for a program that had back-to-back eleven win seasons in 2005 and 2006.
The big spring question is ...
Where is the pressure going to come from?  Blake and Chase Ortiz were bookend defensive end/edge rushers who started for much of the past three years.  Although Blake was a shell of his former self last season, and didn’t play for a long stretch, Horned Frog opponents still had to respect these two off the edge.  Jerry Hughes and Matt Panfil started at various times throughout last season, but keep an eye on Allen Christopher and Braylon Broughton as well. 
The most important position to watch is ...
Running back.  If Aaron Brown is healthy, running back could the team’s strongest position. The 2007 MWC Pre-Season Offensive Player of the Year was on the shelf for a significant portion of the season thanks to injuries, but the running game didn’t lose much production (nearly 170 yards per game).  The top seven rushers are back this season, including leading rusher Joseph Turner.  Add in a healthy Brown for a full season and the Horned Frogs running game could average over 200 yards per game.
Spring attitude...
Redemption may be too strong a word, but the Horned Frogs have a little something to prove.  However, it won’t be easy.  BYU is going to be salty, while Utah won’t fall off the face of the map.  San Diego State is improving, while New Mexico is coming off of a nine win season.  If the Horned Frogs can fill some defensive holes, though, they should contend for a title, yet again.  But, 2007 must be a distant memory for that to happen.

UNLV  Spring Practice Begins:  March 10 Spring Game: April 18
The early spring buzz ... Will there ever be a rainbow?  Head coach Mike Sanford came to UNLV with a bunch of hype as the former Mad Scientist at Utah who helped quarterback Alex Smith become the number one pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.  He’s been the head coach for the Rebels for three years and has a total of six wins (2-10, 2-9 and 2-10), so any sort of boost in the win total will be a plus.  Perhaps the goal just needs to be that the program is competitive in a good conference.  Either way, the buzz around this program is nearly inaudible and Sanford is running out of time to turn up the volume.
The big spring question is ...
When does the Mike Sanford offense click? It’s been long enough to get the right recruits in place, and the young team of last year has to start producing as expected. The Rebels had six games of 14 points or fewer in 2007 and scored 13 points or fewer in seven games in 2006.  It’s like Brian Billick Disease – a guy is hired to be a head coach based on what he’s done as an offensive coordinator and his attack does next to nothing anything.  Consistency at quarterback will help, and Sanford might have found his guy in sophomore-to-be Omar Clayton, who started last year as a freshman.  Even so, Clayton will have a fight on his hands to hang on to the gig.
The most important position to watch is ... Linebacker.  All-MWC linebacker Beau Bell set a tone for the defense with his physical play, but he’ll be collecting a big check now playing on Sundays.  His position coach Dennis Therrell takes over as the team’s defensive coordinator, so expect him to put his linebackers in a position to make plays more than ever.  Jason Beauchamp will more than likely be that playmaker this season, but replacing an athlete like Bell will be a tall task.
Spring attitude...
The age old question of how to change a losing team into a bunch of winners isn’t easily answered.  A team can have the best attitude in the world and still lose its final eight games as UNLV did last season.  However, a new season allows Sanford to continue to make an impact on his recruits – after four years these are all his guys, all recruited by Sanford.  It’s make-or-break time for him needing to take a positive step forward.

Utah  Spring Practice Begins:  March 11 Spring Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... Another year, another winning season.  Since the undefeated 2004 campaign, the Utes have won seven, eight and nine games in each respective season.  However, the Utes didn’t take home a MWC championship in any of the last three years while archrival BYU has turned into a power.  One of the hottest teams at the end of last year, it took a miraculous fourth down play by BYU to spark a late drive to put a dent in the year, but with an experienced team returning, the team is shooting for big, big things.
The big spring question is ... Can Brian Johnson stay healthy for an entire season?  When Johnson is on the field, this offense is as dangerous as any other in the league. But, the last three years have been a roller coaster ride of enormous proportions with a torn up knee in 2006 and a broken collarbone in the 2007 season opener.  He came back to play in eleven games last season, missing two games, but completed 67% of his passes for 1,847 yards and eleven touchdowns; he wasn’t the same player. If he’s right, Utah could be special.
The most important position to watch is ... Wide Receiver.  Brian Hernandez and Derrek Richards were a big part of the 2007 offense and are now gone.  Bradon Godfrey caught 50 balls last season and should be Johnson’s go-to receiver, but an additional weapon must emerge this spring early on. The more options for Johnson, the better.
Spring attitude...
Keep doing what you’re doing.  Whittingham has proven to be a solid head coach.  He’s got a good thing going; there’s no reason for change.  Keep guys healthy, especially Johnson and stud running back Darrell Mack and all should be good.  Good enough to take a run at a championship, especially with BYU and TCU coming to Salt Lake City this fall.

Wyoming  Spring Practice Begins:  March 26 Spring Game: April 19
The early spring buzz ... Two years ago, head coach Joe Glenn adorned the cover of The Sporting News as the ‘hot’ coach.  Fast forward to the current day and perhaps no coach in the league outside of Mike Sanford at UNLV needs to have a successful season more than Glenn.  The Cowboy faithful expected better than two non-winning seasons in a row and not the major collapses.  Play in the MWC has put the Cowboy head coach under the microscope (losses in six of the team’s last seven MWC games, including the infamous 50-0 loss to Utah) as he needs to get his team competitive again.  The proverbial train has jumped the tracksm and now Glenn has this spring to try to get it back on track. 
The big spring question is ... Can the defense stop anyone?  In the last four games of the season the Cowboys gave up an average of 37 points per game.  Sure, the offense was putrid as well (107th in the nation in total yards), but the defense was the real gins:  March 26 Spring Game: April 19 problem.  The front three of John Fletcher, Fred Givens and Mitch Unrein return, but All-MWC CB Julius Stinson is out of eligibility.
The most important position to watch is ...
Cornerback.  Stinson is gone, and so is fellow starting corner Michael Medina.  In this conference, where teams put pressure on the perimeter, whether through the air or on the ground, filling these two positions ably is a must for this defense to show any sort of improvement.  Sophomore-to-be Keith Lewis should fill one of the spots, while a competition for the other will be wide open.
Spring attitude...
Changing the attitude this spring is a key.  The Cowboys were 4-1 to start last year, helped by a win over Virginia, and appeared to be on the verge of another bowl trip, but they lost six of the last seven games.  Erasing the bitter taste of the last four games, in particular, is going to be tough, but Glenn has the spring to change this team’s acceptance of mediocrity.