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BYU football: Where's the speed?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

PROVO - A national college football recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, Jeremy Crabtree, watched BYU's nationally ranked football team play on television a couple of times this season and thought to himself: Where's the speed?

"It was apparent that's what was lacking. The way college football is going right now, it is all about speed," Crabtree said. "It is becoming more and more difficult to win without it. To compete at the highest level, you absolutely have to have it."

That's a dilemma for BYU, whose dreams of perfection and busting into the BCS were dashed this season - many observers agree - by its glaring lack of speed, especially on defense.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall admitted as much after a 32-7 loss to TCU was followed by a closer-than-it-should-have-been 42-35 win over UNLV, saying "We didn't think [before the UNLV game] that we could run with their wide receivers, and we thought basically their receiving corps was more talented than our secondary."

Several national college football writers who were in Fort Worth for the TCU showdown, including Dennis Dodd of CBS Sportsline, not-so-jokingly stated that BYU was the slowest team in Division I football. At least, the slowest ranked team.

But from Mendenhall to athletic director Tom Holmoe to a couple of players themselves, the Cougars insist they can win without it, or that they have enough to get by, despite losses of 25 and 24 points to the two fastest teams in the Mountain West - TCU and Utah.

"Make no mistake about it: We are not desperate to find someone that can run 4.2 [in the 40-yard dash]," Holmoe said. "We've got people on our team that are faster than the guys that are playing. But they are not playing. And you would say that with any other team. You need to find players that can play in your system, and they need to be able to have the qualities that you are looking for. Speed is definitely one of them. But it is not the only one. There are many times when the fastest player on the team doesn't play.

"So I am not going to say that speed is overrated, because it is pretty important. But it is not the only thing."

Said linebacker David Nixon, a senior who was recruited by Mendenhall's predecessor, Gary Crowton: "I don't think speed is an issue, besides this year. The year before we proved the speed of our team. We beat both those teams with the same speed that we had basically this year. I don't think our speed has increased or decreased. So, to say that speed is an issue, I really don't think so. I don't buy into it."

We're not changing

Whether one buys into it or not, one thing is fairly certain: Mendenhall isn't changing his recruiting philosophy in an attempt to get athletes who can perhaps run a little faster, jump a little higher and hit a little harder at the expense of what he calls "the right fit" for BYU.

"We have put a lot of work into who we recruit here," he said after the UNLV squeaker. "Athleticism isn't the first thing we look at . . . this institution is so very distinctive in what would draw a young man here, that will always be what we look at in terms of the fit for the young man, and our program. If not, then I think it just becomes exploitation, to bring a kid here just to play ball. This university's purpose is far greater than that."

Mendenhall defended that philosophy again in his news conference last Monday, reminding the media and BCS-hungry Cougar fans that the program has won 30 of its last 34 games and 22 of its last 24 conference games. Both big losses were on the road to teams now ranked No. 6 (Utah) and No. 11 (TCU) in the BCS standings.

"So to bring a young man that possibly isn't of the [Mormon] faith, maybe of a different culture, and to say this will be a perfect fit for them, that's not the case," he said, noting back-to-back, undefeated conference championships in 2006 and 2007. ". . . We have been doing it with players that I think are the perfect fit representing our institution. And that doesn't mean it will be exclusively that, but it does mean I have a responsibility not only to look out for the program, but also for each young man. And to say that Provo, Utah, isn't a unique experience, that would be an understatement."

Mormon Church-owned BYU has a strict moral code, known as the Honor Code, that has made it difficult to attract - and retain - non-LDS athletes in all sports, the coach acknowledged. He said earlier this season that a pool of only about 35 prep football players with Division I talent "self-select" BYU each year.

Edwards: Don't panic

Former BYU coach LaVell Edwards viewed the Utah loss from a suite at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He said Cougar fans shouldn't panic and disagrees that Mendenhall's recruiting philosophy is keeping BYU from attracting the type of athletes it will need to keep pace with the Utes, Horned Frogs and other potential BCS-busters such as Boise State.

"You can't take just one year and go from that," Edwards said. "It's just one year that they have beaten him [lately]. Nothing's wrong. He'll be fine."

If it is a problem, Edwards said, it is nothing that a couple of junior college transfers can't fix. That's the route he took in the mid-1990s, taking a turtle-slow team that went 6-6 and lost 58-56 to Utah State in 1993 to a team that went 10-3 in 1994, 7-4 in 1995 and 14-1 in 1996 by adding JUCO transfers such as Tim McTyer, James Dye, Steve Sarkisian and Omarr Morgan to complement the likes of all-conference performers Chad Lewis, Itula Mili and John Tait. Mendenhall has shown he doesn't have the stomach for that route, although this week made a scholarship offer to a non-LDS junior college linebacker, Aaron Gress of Visalia, Calif.

More LDS?

This year, the Cougars have 16 commitments to date from high school football players, and all 16 are LDS. Last February, 19 of BYU's 21 signees were LDS, the only exceptions being receiver O'Neill Chambers of Florida and defensive back Garrett Nicholson of Salt Lake City's West High, whose father played college football with Mendenhall. The Cougars lost a promising non-LDS defensive back, G Pittman, midway through this season for reasons not entirely related to academics, although that was the primary reason given by Mendenhall for his departure.

"I don't ever see the philosophical nature of whom we are recruiting - in terms of athleticism - change," Mendenhall said. "We will recruit whom we can recruit, and then our coaches are responsible to have them in the right place at the right time, and to do the things that they are capable of, which we have done, at least leading to an [outstanding] record at this point."

Yes, but can that get the Cougars to the BCS?

Asked a week ago what element got the Utes to the BCS more than any other, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham responded: "Recruiting. That's the No. 1 gig in college football. It's all about the players. If you can recruit well, you can get it done."

Are there enough?

There was a time, Edwards said, when BYU could get pretty much any LDS athlete it wanted. Those times are gone, he acknowledged.

Crabtree, the recruiting guru, said that there are probably enough LDS football players around the country to build a strong program with them alone, but just barely.

"You run into talented players that are of the Mormon faith in Texas, California, Florida, even Oklahoma," he said. "I don't know if the ultimate answer is to recruit those types of kids only, but I think there's more talent out there nationally that fit that description than a lot of people think."

But like Edwards, Crabtree says the Cougars don't have a lock on them anymore.

A couple of prime examples are Haloti Ngata, the possible Pro Bowl-bound defensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens who turned down BYU and went to Oregon, and Stanley Havili, USC's starting fullback.

This year, there are scads of LDS high schoolers being given the highest ratings (four and five stars) by the recruiting analysts. All have offers from BYU, but most are still uncommitted, a sure sign that the Cougars have battles on their hands now for LDS kids with the the likes of USC, Notre Dame and LSU.

The big one is five-star linebacker Manti Te'o of Hawaii's Punahou High. A devout Mormon who unequivocally says he will serve a church mission after his freshman year of college, Te'o possesses the speed from sideline to sideline that many believe BYU lacks.

"BYU needs him in the worst way," said a Scout.com recruiting analyst who asked for anonymity. "He's a difference-maker, and him going to BYU would make a huge statement."

The enemy within

And then there's the Utah factor. Former Utah coach Ron McBride embraced the mission-bound LDS athlete like no other Utes coach before him, and Whittingham has carried on that tradition.

The bigger factor is that Whittingham is LDS himself and can offer some of the spiritual components that BYU has, without some of the restrictions. For example, the Utes plucked their all-conference defensive end, returned missionary Paul Kruger, from right out of the Cougars' back yard, and this year they are neck-and-neck with BYU for Bingham linebacker L.T. Filiaga, whose father once worked for the Cougars.

"I think there are enough [LDS players] to be a dominant program if you get them all," Edwards said. "But you are not going to get them all. We didn't get them all. So you have to complement them, you have to go out and find [non-LDS] kids who can fit in. I think Bronco and his staff can do that. I think they know that."

drew@sltrib.com

CLASS OF 2009

Player Position Hometown or Utah H.S. Religion

Brad Wilcox T Edmond, Okla LDS

Richard Wilson TE Spanish Fork LDS

Brett Thompson WR El Dorado Hills, Calif. LDS

Fono Vakalahi G Bryan, Texas LDS

Ryan Mulitalo G Hunter LDS

Remington Peck TE Bingham LDS

Anthony Heimuli RB Mountain View LDS

Mitch Mathews WR Beaverton, Ore. LDS

Trevor Bateman DB Palm Desert, Calif. LDS

Peni Maka'afi RB Northridge LDS

Riley Nelson QB Logan LDS

Tui Crichton G Timpview LDS

Terry Alletto OL Parker, Colo. LDS

Craig Bills DB Timpview LDS

Jray Galea'i DB Kahuku, Hawaii LDS

Adam Timo RB Snow Canyon LDS

Cougars say they can win without it; others aren't so sure
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