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.
First-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman is looking to establish a balanced attack designed to keep opposing defenses guessing.
"We've really tried to build a strong foundation of play-action stuff," he said. "We want to be able to physically run the football. If we can against the teams we'll be playing now, it will sure help us be better in the pass game. In years past, if you go back and look statistically against these types of teams that we'll play as an independent program, we haven't been as successful. We haven't been able to run the ball as successfully against these teams. In order for us to be a top 10 football program, in this style of a schedule, we've got to run the ball more effectively. So we spent a lot of time focusing on that."
Under former offensive coordinator Robert Anae, the Cougar offense had become stagnant and predictable. Doman plans to put Heaps under center more often and build on the momentum accrued during the second half of the season that saw BYU win six of its final eight games.
"We're still growing; we're still learning. It's been a lot of fun," he said. "I'm very happy with my progress so far. I just want to continue to keep improving and getting better every day. That's something I'm really looking at this off-season and heading into fall camp. The team goes as the quarterback goes, so there's a lot I need to do to get this team ready."
Heaps has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Running backs JJ Di Luigi, Bryan Kariya and Joshua Quezada provide the Cougars with a strong ground game.
"We're going to mix it up and utilize them in the run game and be balanced that way, especially on first down," Doman said. "Then you'll see us do a lot more play-action. Second-and-10, third down, those kinds of things, you'll see us do more of our drop-back pass game that we love to do. But it's got to be more balanced than we've done in the past."
As a group, wide receivers McKay Jacobson, Cody Hoffman, Ross Apo, Spencer Hafoka, Rhen Brown, JD Falslev and Matt Marshall should put up big numbers under the direction of first-year wide receivers coach Ben Cahoon.
"Our receivers have improved drastically over the past season," Heaps said. "Coach Cahoon has done a fantastic job getting our technique down and getting them thinking about coverages and getting them thinking right. It's going to help us heading into the off-season."
The only real question is at tight end, where the Cougars are looking for players like Devin Mahina, Austin Holt and Marcus Mathews to step up.
The BYU offensive line returns four starters, including left tackle Matt Reynolds, center Terence Brown and left guard Braden Hansen. All three were sidelined during spring drills as they recovered from surgeries, which enabled key backups to gain experience.
"BYU's always been a team where we've had some really good players, but not necessarily known for a lot of depth," Heaps said. "Now we have talent all over the field. We're just excited with our development right now."
Doman, who's in his first season as the play-caller, will be at the controls of the offense.
"We want to be able to run and throw the ball around," Doman said. "If we can combine those components here like BYU used to be able to do in the 1980s and early 1990s, we'll really be hard to stop. But that's an 'if' right now."
BYU had limited time to put its inaugural independent schedule together. But it features some impressive big-name opponents and a tough opening month.
The Cougars kick off the season at Ole Miss of the Southeastern Conference on Sept. 3, with a trip to Texas of the Big 12 the following week.
Then comes the home-opener, a showdown with archrival Utah, of the Pac-12, followed by a home game against Central Florida, a potential top 25 team.
In terms of scheduling, the Cougars' partnership with ESPN has already paid dividends. ESPN played an instrumental role in setting up the Ole Miss contest and the Oct. 28 game against TCU at Cowboys Stadium.
"ESPN helped us greatly," said athletic director Tom Holmoe. "We had some schools step forward with a willingness to play us."
The Cougars will also play at Mendenhall's alma mater, Oregon State, on Oct. 15. BYU will meet five Western Athletic Conference foes, including Utah State, as well as Idaho State of the Big Sky.
"It's kind of an empowering opportunity and liberation going into independence of controlling our own destiny from the schedule to the future of our program," Mendenhall said.
While the NCAA would have allowed the Cougars to play a 13th game because of their regular-season finale at Hawaii on Dec. 3, Holmoe and Mendenhall decided to play only 12 contests. "When you look at this schedule and you see where we're playing, there's a lot of travel," Holmoe said.
No matter what happens, BYU's foray into independence should be quite a journey.