Their attention fully on UConn and the 2014 season opener on Friday at Rentschler Field in East Harfford (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN), the Cougars practiced early Monday morning and then met with reporters around 10 a.m. at the football offices lobby in the Student Athlete Building.
BYU released its two-deep chart at about the same time, and you can read more about that at sltrib.com when my report is posted later today.
Along with depth chart questions, coach Bronco Mendenhall fielded questions about the captains he announced at the Big Blue Bash on Saturday night, about making sure the opener doesn’t repeat last year’s opener, and what he knows about the Huskies and new coach Bob Diaco.
And, he mentioned the team he really wanted to play in the 2014, opener, instead of UConn. Read further for that.
Regarding last year’s 19-16 loss to Virginia, Mendenhall said he hopes his players learned from it.
"To me, any loss has more value than a win," he said. "The lessons, man, they hurt, and they are applied usually faster. Always difficult to tell exactly where you are going into the opener. I was shocked that we didn’t score more points last year in our opener based on how our offense had moved it against our defense.
I think I am more cautious than anything and maybe less accepting of exactly what I see and trying to predict what will that really look like. But the opener, there is always uncertainty. I think that is the takeaway. There is uncertainty in the opener. I didn’t think there was a year ago, and there ended up being a lot."
Mendenhall said players are adjusting well to the early morning routine. Coaches arrived at 5:45 a.m. Monday morning, although some "younger coaches, more dedicated coaches" were here at 5 a.m. to do their individual workouts.
"Man, it feels like we have gotten a lot done in a short amount of time," Mendenhall said. "I think coaches are adjusting to being home earlier and I think wives are adjusting for them to be home earlier, which I think is good."
It was somewhat surprising that Mendenhall announced the captains on Saturday, and not through a BYU news release as he usually does. Heck, even the coach was surprised.
On why he announced it Saturday night:
"I did announce it Saturday night. I wasn’t planning to, but since Craig [Bills] was there, I announced him, which kinda led to the announcing of the other captains."
They are Remington Peck, Taysom Hill and Paul Lasike.
"Paul has made a real rapid ascent in our program, from not knowing the rules to being named a captain. Remington has been a product of the program, has tried really hard.
And Craig and Taysom I don’t think surprised anyone, in terms of numbers of votes they got. We will have special teams captains in place as well, as far as leadership council members."
Mendenhall didn’t announce those, he said, because he forgot his list and didn’t want to leave anybody out.
BYU is a 16 1/2-point favorite on Friday, but Mendenhall said UConn has plenty of good players and has the capability of beating any team on its schedule, because of that talent.
"They finished on a strong note, putting a nice streak together at the end of their season. Brand new staff on both sides. What that will look like in terms of chemistry, in terms of effort, in terms of personnel, even with schemes, hard to know. So that makes me more reserved, also, in terms of predicting the opener. So certainly capable. I have seen their personnel and they are certainly capable. What the team will look like, the focus has to go more back to us, because we can control that. Not sure what we will see from them," he said.
It would be a shame if Jordan Johnson, who is from nearby Springfield, Mass., cannot play in the opener. He’s been looking forward to it since March of 2013 when the schools announced the agreement.
Rumors have swirled for weeks that Johnson will be suspended for the opener, although he is listed as the starter on the depth chart at field corner.
"So, Jordan has taken a long road back through his ACL. A lot of times when the ACL comes back, physically he is ready. But then mentally to be able to trust, to plant off of it, to believe it is back, that is much more difficult," Mendenhall said. "So it has taken Trent [Trammell], who had his hurt earlier, even until the last eight days, I would say, to see him have confidence in it. I would say Jordan is still probably a week behind what Trent is.
The good news is we have had it tested and it is beyond where it was before it was hurt. So not it is just adjusting back to, it is really OK.
I think ultimately, by the end of the season, he will end up having a fantastic year. How fast? Hard to predict that part."
I asked Mendenhall how the series with UConn got set up, mostly for a story I am writing later in the week about the former Big East program.
Surprisingly, the coach said he originally wanted to play a different school in the Northeast.
"Originally, I was after Syracuse, and would loved to have had that as an opener, with some of the church history things built in and going a day early," he said. "Anyway, it started with Syracuse, and then we started looking at who else around there. That’s about all I remember. I am not sure when they come back. It might be next year. I haven’t looked that far."
Here’s more from the coach, who won’t speak to the media again until after Friday’s game:
On how well he knows new UConn coach Bob Diaco:
"I don’t. I have never met him. I just know him by reputation, and that is I think he has done a really good job at Notre Dame, with their defense. It was fun watching them and we have studied a lot of their film. They weren’t identical to us, but they were a 3-4 team and I think they played well."
On whether he has changed his thinking about when to take a team to a game:
"I am never positive it is the right one. I feel good about where we are and gosh, you just gotta play. And once we play, I will know more. You will all know more once we play. So, I am not sure what else I can tell you up to this point."
On having fun Saturday night with players:
"Yeah. Were you there? So I have rarely stayed. I normally go in, do my thing, and go out, because that’s just what I have done. …. It is nice to be able to stay and interact and be a part of things in a different light than what I had been before. I hope it works out that way, I really do. I think it is important for my longevity. I think it is good for our team. I think it is good for our players. And I think it is time."
On whether he is consciously loosening up and showing more of his personality:
"Does it show? I am glad. Working hard at it. I would prefer it this way. Having been the defensive coordinator, even on game day, just the way that I am built, really hard to pay attention to anything else, other than, ‘what is the next play?’
What is the coordinator thinking? What is the next situation to be ready for?’ And when I become that focused, hard to really interact with anybody. Now that those things have been delegated, player relationships is something that as a position coach I really enjoyed. As the head coach I don’t get to do that as much. Really, it is there for me, as long as I’ve structured it correctly. So as long as Nick [Howell] does a great job with the defense, Robert [Anae] with the offense and Kelly [Poppinga] with the special teams, man, I hope I can be more of myself, or more of a different version of myself, without play-calling responsibility."
On whether he talked to LaVell Edwards about going the delegation route:
"I really haven’t. He advised me really early on to not coordinate one side or the other. I think that’s what he learned over time, as he was a coordinator and then became a head coach. But really, the competitive work is really playing the game. So until you feel like the coaching can be given to someone that will do a phenomenal job with the competitive work, hard to give that up.
So, Nick [Howell] has been with me nine years. If anyone would know how I would like it done, it is him. He has a personality similar. Yeah, I kind of feel liberated to some extent. Hopefully it all plays out that way and we perform well so it can keep going."
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