PROVO As two-time defending Mountain West Conference champion BYU opens spring practices today, coach Bronco Mendenhall is looking for a few good men to replace departing players, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cougars, who finished 11-2 and ranked No. 14 in 2007, return all but one starter on offense, but there are some major voids to fill on defense due to the departure of eight starters, including linebackers Bryan Kehl and Kelly Poppinga and the defensive secondary.
Mendenhall said that with the exception of the defensive line, where there's the stability of experienced players, defensive jobs are up for grabs.
"The rest of the positions I'm very confident will be filled adequately. We'll have an excellent defense. Who will be those players right now, spring will be very helpful to determine," Mendenhall said. "I don't anticipate many changes other than the next wave of players that have been prepared through the program to assume roles that have now become open."
Fortunately for the Cougars, defensive linemen Jan Jorgensen (who recorded 14 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss and was an All-MWC selection), Brett Denney and Ian Dulan return. So does starting linebacker David Nixon, who is expected to move to Kehl's outside linebacker position. Tight end Vic So'oto switched from tight end to linebacker to help with that transition.
"As a coaching staff, we felt that with the loss of Bryan Kehl, and Chris Bolden as well, that we had a need at outside linebacker," Mendenhall said. "The attempt is to move David Nixon to where Bryan Kehl played and Vic So'oto possibly to where David played last year. We moved Matt Putnam from defensive line to outside linebacker and recruited (Snow junior college star) Coleby Clawson to fill the middle linebacker spot. It will be quite a battle."
During the offseason there was only one change with the coaching staff as cornerbacks coach Jaime Hill was handed the role of defensive coordinator, which was previously handled by Mendenhall.
One of the main objectives of spring ball, on both sides of the ball, will be establishing the depth chart.
"On the offensive side, much like the defensive side last year, we have a lot of returners," Mendenhall said. "Finding the key backups there is of real importance, especially developing the backup quarterback position. Defensively, there will be a larger volume of new faces and identifying where each player fits and in what order I think will be really important. If we are able to accomplish that this spring, our efficiency in fall camp with getting the right players the amount of work necessary to be ready will be helpful."
There has been an influx of new players, while injuries will also affect the look of the team that practices this spring.
Defensive lineman Russell Tialavea, who tore an ACL during fall camp last August, will not be available for spring ball, but Mendenhall is hopeful he'll be ready to play in the fall. "The recovery and rehabilitation has taken longer than expected," he explained.
Freshman running back J.J. DiLuigi, who broke his foot during fall camp and missed the entire season, will be participating this spring.
Those who will be limited in their participation in spring ball due to injury include safeties David Tafuna and Chris Warner. Offensive linemen Travis Bright and Jason Speredon and linebacker Jadon Wagner won't be involved in spring ball, but the Cougars are optimistic they'll be healthy in the fall. Among the returned missionaries who will be participating this spring include wide receivers Luke Ashworth and Spencer Hafoka and backup quarterback Stephen Covey.
Mendenhall has been pleased with the way his team has performed in off-season workouts."It's the hardest we've pushed any of our teams yet, which is saying quite a bit," he said. "They're actually at the highest level of physical preparation that I've seen of any program. They've responded very well."