BYU football: Despite turbulence, exciting times ahead for Cougars

Published: Sunday, April 24 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall

Lennie Mahler, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series reviewing BYU's spring practices and looking ahead to the Cougars' inaugural season as an independent.

PROVO — Somewhere between declaring independence, and actually becoming an independent, BYU's football program underwent a major transformation.

Yes, it's been a turbulent eight months for the Cougars.

Since Sept. 1, when BYU officials announced independent status starting in 2011 and an eight-year broadcasting deal with ESPN, the Cougars have endured:

A dual-quarterback system that resulted in the handing of the keys to the offense to a true freshman.

A 1-4 start, their worst since 1973.

A midseason firing of a coordinator.

A strong finish to a mediocre season, but a heartbreaking, last-second loss to archrival Utah.

A serious shakeup on the coaching staff.

Now that the dust has settled and spring practice has concluded, coach Bronco Mendenhall is happy with the state of his program as BYU dives headlong into a new era of independence this fall.

When spring drills opened in March, Mendenhall characterized the feeling around the program amid myriad changes as "a rebirth." Following the Blue-White game, he said, "it's probably been my favorite spring so far."

After suffering through a humbling 2010 campaign filled with adversity, the Cougars are brimming with confidence and optimism.

"We have enough good players, I think, at every position," said Mendenhall, who enters his seventh season at the helm. "I'm comfortable with the depth. I'm comfortable with the schemes that are in place and the fundamentals we have established and certainly the competitive nature of this team."

Not that it appeared the Cougars were due for an overhaul a year ago. Before posting a 7-6 record in 2010, BYU had gone 43-9 in the previous four seasons. As an independent, Mendenhall knows the Cougars must be even better. With national exposure being one of the main motivations for going independent, BYU can't afford struggles like last season that would render the program irrelevant on the national scene.

"While we've acknowledged that we've been a good program, sometimes good is the enemy of great," Mendenhall said, adding that his staff and players "want to be great."

Sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps, who was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season, said he and his teammates are eager for the challenge, and opportunity, of playing as an independent.

"We're ecstatic. We can't wait to get this season going. The level of expectation that's put on us as a team, it's just been a lot of fun. We're really excited to get going. This is a really great opportunity for BYU, as a university and for our program, to showcase to the country what we're capable of. We have the talent; it's just a matter of putting it all together. It's going to be exciting."

And it's going to be different, with the dissolution of an 11-year association with the Mountain West Conference.

"We're not playing for a conference championship," Heaps said. "We're playing for a national championship."

Heaps is not predicting that winning a national title is going to happen right away, but he is optimistic.

"I'm really excited to see where this off-season takes us," he said. "I think we definitely have the talent, and potential, to do something special this year."

More balanced, and experienced, offense

With a proven starter at quarterback in Heaps, and returning players at nearly every position, BYU could be poised for a huge season offensively.

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