BYU FOOTBALL: Defense expects smooth sailing through camp
The stress level has decreased. The confusion has cleared. The uncertainty has abated.
One year after Brigham Young implemented the 3-4 defense, fall camp has a different feel for the defensive players.
Instead of cramming to learn a new scheme, they are enjoying the fine-tuning process.
"Now we can go out and just play football," BYU linebacker David Nixon said. "That is the fun part. We are not worrying too much about what the assignments are or about what is going on. We can just play ball."
BYU switched from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 defense - three down linemen and four linebackers - last season to take advantage of the program's strength and depth at linebacker.
The change paid big dividends.
BYU finished the year ranked 38th nationally in total defense (319.15 yards per game), 10th in scoring defense (14.69 points) - the lowest at BYU since 1985 - and fourth in turnover margin (+1.08).
The Cougars return seven starters on defense this year, and 13 players with starting experience.
"I think last year there was some surprise the defense was able to manage points as they did," said BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who also serves as the team's defensive coordinator. "Position mastery and execution is really what we are focusing on [this fall], and then try to solidify and make sure we have the right two-deep ready for Arizona. There won't be many new ideas and won't be many new scheme changes."
BYU's biggest loss on defense was at middle linebacker, with the graduation of Cameron Jensen. But Kelly Poppinga has shifted into Jensen's spot, and found a new home.
"It is where I belong. I love it," Poppinga said. "I am free to go from side to side compared to being on the outside where you are restricted to one area. Being in the middle, there are no restrictions and I can fly around."
Although the Cougars have conducted only two days of camp, the players say there is a noticeable difference on the field.
"We are miles and miles ahead of where we were at this time last season, and that excites me because we had a great defense last year," Poppinga said. "The intensity and confidence is better than it was, and we are getting more done in less amount of time and having more fun doing it."
BYU's offense is usually the unit that receives most of the attention, but Nixon believes that could change this year.
"Our goal is to be a top-10 defense in the nation, and we have the personnel, speed and experience to do it," he said. "Overall, it's going to be a very big improvement.
Coach Mendenhall has given us the thumbs up on his part, and we just have to keep plugging away and execute to the highest level."
Having scaled the learning curve, BYU's defense doesn't plan to change direction any time soon.
"We don't want to take any steps backwards," Poppinga said. "We want to raise the bar. If we can do that and keep this intensity, some special things are going to be done here this season."
After paying his legal fees, junior running back Manase Tonga joined the team in camp for the first time on Monday afternoon.
Tonga was arrested during a routine traffic stop July 3 in Provo. The 23-year-old provided a fictitious name to the officer, and had a warrant out for his arrest for failing to a pay a prior ticket for running a stop sign.
"I haven't addressed the team as a whole, but I think the team understands where I am coming from and I am just happy to be here in practice and be around the guys and performing," said Tonga, who will serve a one-game suspension during the team's season opener against Arizona. "I think they know where my heart is, and I really missed them. I just wanted to be on the field."
Tonga shared carries with fellow junior Fui Vakapuna in the first-team offense during Monday's practice.
"Manase will come back and he will run with the first team most likely all the way up until we get ready for Arizona," Mendenhall said. "That is the right he has earned over his time here. He is a leader on our team and I trust him."