Provo • The BYU Cougars are wallowing through their worst football season in coach Bronco Mendenhall's six-year tenure, and one of the worst in the past 40 years.
Mendenhall claimed during the summer the Cougars were not rebuilding. But some kind of drop-off had to be expected in 2010. After all, the Cougars won 10 or more games for four straight seasons and sent their all-time winningest quarterback (Max Hall), most prolific pass-catching tight end (Dennis Pitta) and all-time leading rusher (Harvey Unga) to the NFL and lost underrated defenders Jan Jorgensen, Scott Johnson and Matt Bauman to graduation.
But the depth of the fall has been shocking nevertheless. It's not that the Cougars are 2-5 and in danger of missing postseason play that is most startling. Against the nation's fourth most-difficult schedule, a non-winning record to this point was almost inevitable, looking back.
The real surprise has been that the team hasn't been competitive in any of the five losses, except maybe Nevada. The blowout loss at Utah State will probably never be explained away, although the emotionally charged Aggies playing at home are always going to be a tough out for the Cougars, moving forward.
It all begs the question: How did this happen?
How did the Cougars go from being a Top-25 program to a Mountain West Conference also-ran in their final season in the league virtually overnight?
Seven weeks of scrutiny have focused on Mendenhall's questionable decision to rotate quarterbacks Jake Heaps and Riley Nelson, the negative vibe of a since-fired defensive coordinator (Jaime Hill), the suspect play-calling of an experienced and previously successful offensive coordinator (Robert Anae), some costly injuries to key players, and other highly visible aspects of the program.
Here's another theory: Because of some key defections, some player-evaluation blunders, and the failure by coaches to land the lifeblood of the program the nation's top LDS athletes the Cougars are simply short on talent. And the prospects for a sudden infusion don't look good.
Perhaps it is a talent deficit that no amount of coaching, play-calling, maniacal effort or Mendenhall's pet phrase "position mastery" can overcome.
"I've made probably a lot of mistakes so far this season," Mendenhall allowed earlier this week, but an analysis of the 2010 roster and past recruiting classes shows that other mistakes were made three or four years ago.
Take the 2006 signing class, for instance. A few signees from that year are contributing, players such as receiver McKay Jacobson, lineman Braden Hansen, cornerback Brandon Bradley and linebacker Brandon Ogletree. But far more are still riding the bench, or worse, out of the program.
Four-star defensive tackle Matangi Tonga, highly touted California safety Michael Moore, supposed Wyoming run-stuffer Rick Wolfley, Oregon quarterback Sam Doman and Bountiful linebacker Nate Moncur are long gone, having never made an impact. And other deficits happened that were simply out of the coaches' control. For instance, the Cougars are without a capable free safety because promising recruit Shiloah Te'o was kicked out of school last fall due to a DUI charge. Their defensive line is thin because a pair of defensive tackles Ian Dulan and Russell Tialavea took the unusual (but not frowned-upon) route of going on LDS Church missions prior to their senior seasons.
They are average at running back because Unga's ouster came too late for coaches to plumb the junior college ranks for his replacement, and freshman Josh Quezada needs a little more time to develop into the star staffers believe he will be. In 2008, they signed one of the top prep running backs in California, Seta Pohahau, but he never made it academically.
"I make no excuses, nor are there any," said Mendenhall, who, not surprisingly, doesn't buy the talent deficit theory.
Mendenhall's annual warning to boosters on signing day that the "star-system" used by recruiting services isn't always accurate is coming true; Several three- or four-star recruits signed by BYU the past few years haven't been nearly as good as advertised.
Coaches say the struggles haven't caused them to look for quick fixes from the juco ranks, a tactic rival Utah has successfully used to maintain its Top-25 status. Anyone else notice that former Utes/juco transfers David Reed and Koa Misi are in the NFL, or the kind of impact former Snow College star Matt Asiata is having?
"Our [recruiting] class is already full for the upcoming year [and includes no junior college players]," Mendenhall said. "There really hasn't been any thought to [changing]. We have missionaries coming home ... so nothing has really changed that way."
However, none of the RMs set to return in 2011 are Austin Collie-like difference-makers, except perhaps linebacker Mike Alisa, kicker Justin Sorensen or running back Adam Hine, a four-star recruit from St. George who went on a mission before enrolling.
Where's the talent? Utah's defensive line is chock full of highly recruited LDS players; Oregon, Notre Dame, UCLA, Oregon State, Cal, Stanford and USC won recent recruiting battles against BYU for top LDS recruits, too.
Also, players who were solid contributors when the likes of Hall, Collie, Pitta and Unga were making plays have not been up to snuff when defenses have focused on them.
"We've got plenty of guys," said quarterbacks coach Brandon Doman. "I mean, some of these guys have been here, and they have a proven track record of making plays. Some of the guys that have made plays here are not making the plays that we are used to them making ... Goodness, we've got players that were hard to get in recruiting. Really hard to get, and we got them here. And now we've got to coach them to make plays."
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Significant personnel losses for BYU football, 2010:
Harvey Unga Running back
Denied re-admittance into school after honor code violation
Shiloah Te'o Safety
Kicked off team after suspicion of DUI arrest in 2009
Russell Tialavea Def. tackle
Went on church mission after junior season in 2009
Malosi Te'o Running back
Left team after considering position switch, walking on at Hawaii
Jerry Bruner Running back
Plagued by injuries, then transferred to Washington State
Jordan Atkinson Linebacker
Nagging shoulder injury has kept juco transfer off the field
Romney Fuga Def. tackle
Suffered season-ending knee injury against Nevada
Riley Nelson Quarterback
Underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after FSU loss
Wyoming at BYU
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