Provo • Bronco Mendenhall didn’t talk to the media an awful lot during the three-week preseason training camp that concluded the middle of last week. But when he did, he often repeated a simple phrase when asked for a progress report on his 10th team as the BYU Cougars’ head coach.
"I like my team," Mendenhall would say. "I like it a lot."
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Mendenhall would go on to describe the unprecedented depth at almost every position, saying there has been more competition for starting spots than he can ever remember. For proof, he and offensive line coach Garett Tujague would point to the offensive line, where a couple of players who started and played a lot last year or even the year before might not even "make the airplane" - the traveling squad for Friday’s season-opener at UConn (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN).
"Competition has driven the pace of production of our team," Mendenhall said the last time he met with reporters, last Tuesday. "It is probably the number one takeaway from our fall camp this year, is the effect of competition. There really hasn’t been a place where we haven’t had it, which has really increased the production at every spot."
Sure, there is optimism everywhere in college football, because nobody has lost yet. That’s a rite of preseason camp.
But clearly, Mendenhall and his coaching staff believe this could be a special season for BYU, thanks to a favorable schedule that some might even call easy, and the return of talented quarterback Taysom Hill, who seems to have improved upon the offense’s Achilles’ heel in 2013, his passing accuracy.
That’s probably why Mendenhall, who could have been accused of being too picky regarding the players he brought into the program in the past, suddenly allowed BYU to become Transfer U. in the offseason.
"We were probably a couple players away from being really, really good," linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga said before spring camp.
The Cougars brought in UTEP receiver Jordan Leslie, Stanford receiver Keanu Nelson, Nebraska safety Harvey Jackson, Riverside (Calif.) College receiver Devon Blackmon, who started his college career at Oregon, and lanky playmaker Nick Kurtz of Grossmont (Calif.) College. All are non-LDS, and all have looked like athletic, game-changing type players at one time or another in training camp.
Leslie, Nelson and Harvey all graduated from their previous schools, and will play just one season at BYU, another indicator that there’s a "now or never" mentality in Provo this year.
Kurtz was diagnosed as having a stress fracture in his left foot in camp, and will miss the first four games or so. Blackmon somewhat cryptically self-reported his first-game suspension for running afoul of BYU’s honor code his first few months in town, a sign that Mendenhall’s personnel gambles won’t be without some speed bumps. Prized running back Jamaal Williams will miss the opener due to suspension as well, along with possibly three or four other projected starters who were involved in a July 11 party that included alcohol, an honor code no-no.
So the impact of this talent upgrade in Provo might not manifest itself until the long-awaited showdown at revenge-minded Texas on Sept. 6, or even later if Williams and company can’t knock off the rust. And Jackson, who has looked inconsistent and winded in the scrimmages and media viewing segments of camp, might not even make the two-deep chart at safety.
Speaking of that, the depth chart for the UConn game will be released Monday morning, meaning more specifics on player suspensions should be known then - especially at cornerback.
On offense, there aren’t many questions, and receivers and offensive linemen will be rotated so much that starters probably won’t matter, Tujague and receivers coach Guy Holliday said.
For those who haven’t paid attention, the shocker is that true freshman Tejan Koroma will be the starting center; And another freshman, returned missionary Ului Lapuaho, will likely be commissioned to protect Hill’s blindside as the opening-game left tackle. For all the boasting coaches have done about depth, perhaps the fact that the OL will include two freshmen starters is telling, although reviews have generally been positive from teammates.
"I thought the offensive line had a really good camp," Hill said. "Guys like Tejan have come in there and earned a spot there. I thought that was the biggest improvement through camp."
The other upgrades came earlier.
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