Filling the gaps

Walk-ons big part of Y.'s revolving missionary door

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 26 2004 11:07 a.m. MDT

PROVO — Call it two diverse football philosophies converging at BYU — one by choice, the other by necessity.

Bronco Mendenhall's eye for player effort hasn't changed over the years. Once again he is plugging in players from nowhere into BYU's 3-3-5 defense. And it appears to be working. At last count, 11 of 22 defensive players used in Saturday's win over Air Force were non-scholarship players or former walk-on athletes.

But the young, intense and innovative defensive coordinator's understanding of what makes BYU's coaching job unique has evolved after two seasons in Provo. He understands the challenge of coaching players bound for church service, even if it doesn't fit football science.

The reason? Priorities.

Although Mendenhall is LDS and has lived much of his life in Utah, he continues to be amazed at the model BYU football works with — that freshman stars like Dennis Pitta (tight end) and possibly Austin Collie (wide receiver) and his own players, Matt Bauman and Matt Ah You, will just disappear for two years in a few months.

And football work goes on.

Last spring, after earning a starting safety spot, freshman Kellen Fowler walked into Mendenhall's office and said he had accepted a call to serve a mission to Alaska. Before that, it was starting freshman linebacker David Nixon, just months before. Welcome to BYU, Mendenhall thought, as he scratched his head and looked up at his depth chart.

He'd already lost senior James Allen and Tennessee transfer Shannon Benton to suspensions, both penciled in as starters. Fowler's decision just made it more complex.

Had Mendenhall been at Oregon State or New Mexico, he would have been upset — even mad.

"I would have questioned their commitment to play football and their commitment to the program and their loyalty," Mendenhall said. "I would have had a problem with it. It's not Oregon State or New Mexico by any stretch of imagination. I think it is one of the unique privileges of this university and something we do. I'm getting to understand it. Although I grew up here, I didn't understand the impact that this had in football.

"I'm attempting to coach them in a way that will prepare them to be the best missionaries they can be. I think I can help them prepare. I expect them to be leaders in their missions, to carry the same work ethic there as they've learned here so they will be leaders in a more important work there than here.

"So, when I talk to myself for my motives in coaching and what I do, it fits in to what I'm doing here. My hope is that they represent this university, the church, themselves and the defense in a positive way. I'm not saying they get out there and run door-to-door, but they work hard."

Mendenhall is seeing this even more clearly today.

The past two games, he's started Bauman, a freshman walk-on from Skyline High, at linebacker. Against Air Force, one of the nation's top rushing teams that deploys a sophisticated option attack, Bauman led the Cougars in tackles (10). The Falcons gained 232 yards rushing.

Of the 232 Air Force yards, 42 came on one fourth-quarter play when Mendenhall says his defenders failed "to pinch" the middle of the line for one of the only few times that day. It was Air Force's worst rushing effort since gaining 182 against nationally ranked California.

But back to Bauman.

He's headed for Pennsylvania and a two-year mission in January — another lifelong dream. On Saturday, he played in place of JC transfer Justin Luettgerodt, one of BYU's most heralded recruits signed last February.

All Mendenhall's investment in Bauman will be placed in escrow in 2005. Mendenhall, then, cannot get to the deposit. And just last week Mendenhall said he would recommend to head coach Gary Crowton that Bauman be given a scholarship. But even that move, if approved, couldn't happen until 2006 upon Bauman's return.

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