Provo • Last October, after the BYU Cougars got off to another slow start — losses in two of their first three games — coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged that if he “made any mistakes” during the 2011 preseason camp it was that he didn’t have his players go hard enough in live settings. He said he erred on the side of trying to keep players healthy, rather than having them get accustomed to physical contact and game-like situations.
So as the 2012 camp begins on Thursday — newcomers start practice at 3:30 p.m., joined by veterans at 4 — look for perhaps the most intense, hard-hitting series of practices in Mendenhall’s eight-year tenure.
“To put it bluntly, there is going to be more expected now than ever before,” Mendenhall said at June’s football media day.
With nearly 30 seniors returning and its best depth in at least five years, especially along the offensive and defensive lines, BYU can afford to basically do in preseason camp what most teams always do: scrimmage, scrimmage and scrimmage some more. Because the two-deep chart is more solidified now than in any other August in recent memory, starting with senior quarterback Riley Nelson as the unquestioned leader, coaches can spend more time on play repetition and execution, and less on player evaluation.
“There might be a hair more [emphasis] in terms of volume of repetitions in competitive situations to increase the volume of those types of repetitions, especially as the strength of our schedule … has been front-loaded,” Mendenhall said.
Oh yes, the schedule.
This preseason camp could be considered the most important in the Mendenhall era, because three of the first four games are against big-time opponents, and two (Utah, Sept. 15 and Boise State, Sept. 20) are away from LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Cougars open the season four weeks from Thursday at home against new coach Mike Leach and Washington State.
“There has definitely been a greater sense of urgency, going way back before spring camp, because of who we got out of the gate,” Nelson said.
Having split the majority of repetitions in 11-on-11 drills in 2010 with Jake Heaps and having watched Heaps get the bulk of the reps last year in preseason camp, Nelson can expect about 75-80 percent of the reps this time around, and should benefit greatly, Mendenhall said.
Fans will get a chance to see if Nelson’s throwing ability has improved — there’s no doubting his mobility — on Aug. 9 in the only practice/scrimmage that is open to the public. It starts at 10:20 a.m. at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Although this is perhaps his deepest, most-experienced team yet, Mendenhall said last month that he views this season as a chance to start over.
“The idea of being satisfied, or staying status quo, is the exact opposite of how I feel currently,” he said. “While I am not going to discount anything we’ve done — it has been fantastic and remarkable — I am after more. And that’s the main message to our program … to focus on each single day, like it was a wet towel, and wringing out every bit of water that day. Then we will do it again the next day.”
The surprise departure of running back Joshua Quezada weakens the running back depth a bit, but the Cougars are fairly set at almost every position. There will be battles at tight end, right guard and, perhaps, field corner, where sophomore Jordan Johnson has emerged as the probable starter but could be pushed by Robbie Buckner and maybe even former receiver O’Neill Chambers.
The biggest question mark might be at kicker, as Justin Sorensen attempts to return from offseason back surgery.
“Until I actually see him kick live in fall camp, all I can do right now is be concerned,” Mendenhall said.
Key BYU dates
Thursday • Newcomer practice begins at 3:30 p.m., veteran practice at 4 p.m.
Wednesday • Double-days begin with practices at 10:20 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Aug. 9 • Open-to-public practice/scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium, 10:20 a.m.
Aug. 16 • Closed-to-public practice/scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium, 10:20 a.m.
Aug. 21 • Cougar Kickoff open to public, Haws Field, 6 p.m.
Key position battles
Field corner • Jordan Johnson, Robbie Buckner, O’Neill Chambers
Nose tackle • Romney Fuga, Russell Tialavea
Tight end • Austin Holt, Devin Mahina, Richard Wilson, Kaneakua Friel
Right guard • Brock Stringham, Manaaki Vaitai