PROVO — Eager to improve upon last year's mediocre 7-6 record, and eager to embrace its new independent status, BYU opened fall camp on a hot, sunny Saturday afternoon.
"The excitement and intensity and talent that we have on this team, it's buzzing around here," said sophomore quarterback Jake Heaps, who completed 8-of-9 passes for 108 yards and touchdowns to Ross Apo and Rhen Brown. "The guys can feel it. It's exciting. For this to be Day One practice, I can't wait to see what the rest of our practices will be like. I'm itching to get back here on Monday."
Twelve months ago when the Cougars started fall camp, there were young and inexperienced players all over the roster, looking to replace established stars that had moved on.
Heaps is entrenched as the starter, and he and the other young players have grown up. The Cougars, who return 10 starters on offense, are eager to show that growth this season.
"I feel like we're light years ahead of where we were last year," said wide receiver Cody Hoffman.
The coaching staff has been infused with the addition of new, young coaches, and the players are responding.
"It was great to have our first day of practice. It's just one more step closer to Ole Miss and our season," said Heaps. "I couldn't be happier with the intensity out here and they way these guys are practicing and the talent we have on our team, offensively and defensively. It's a chess match out there and it's going to make our team better."
Running back JJ Di Luigi said there's a different feeling around the team.
"We're a lot more of a family. We practice even harder. We push it on both sides of the ball, offense and defense. But at the end of the day, we're best friends in the locker room. It makes for a better practice environment."
The Cougars seems to know who they are, as opposed to a year ago, when they were searching for a new quarterback, and new leaders.
"At the beginning of last year, we really didn't have a sense of identity," senior wide receiver McKay Jacobson said. "It took us a couple of games. We had a rough start but we finally found our identity. Going through the off-season and spring ball, we're comfortable with our identity and what we're trying to do offensively and defensively."
BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall doesn't feel like he's starting from scratch, like he did last year at this time.
"We didn't need to do nearly as much teaching on Day One as we have in the past," he said. "That should speed up the chance to get our game plans in and possibly accelerate our work on Ole Miss a little bit earlier … Most positions are four-deep and a couple are five-deep. It's reflective of the program's maturity."
The team that took the practice field on Saturday had a much different look even from a few months ago, when most of BYU's starting offensive linemen — including left tackle Matt Reynolds, left guard Braden Hansen, and center Terence Brown — were sidelined for spring ball.
"Boy, we've got a lot of work to do, but it was sure nice to have our towers out there," said first-year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. "It made a big difference in our ability to move the ball. If there was anything that impacted or changed our team today, it was the offensive line."
Doman added that he was "very happy" with the first day of practice.
"We've tweaked a bunch through the summer," he said. "We built a strong foundation during the spring, but there was a lot of things we wanted to add, but weren't ready to add. Some of those things we did today and they were fantastic."
With so many returning players, there are few position battles to be won. But that doesn't mean this camp won't be spirited.
"I think the competition will actually be even more fierce between better quality and not as many unknowns," Mendenhall said. "It's how the reps will be divided. My hope is that I'm looking for a higher level of performance from our team through camp at a faster pace than what we've had before because it's a difficult early schedule."
The Cougars also spent considerable time Saturday working on special teams.
"I think our special teams needs to perform at a higher level," Mendenhall said. "We're putting an increased emphasis on that. Hopefully it will show this year."
O'Neil Chambers attended practices and was actively involved with some coaching from the sidelines.
As has become tradition, the true freshmen took the field with some hideous hairdos, courtesy of the upper-classman barber shop. Lene LeSatele donned what looked to have received the worst of it, followed closely by Ryker Mathews.
True freshman Teu Kautai was working out as a defensive back, although he signed with BYU as a linebacker. Stehly Reden, as anticipated, donned the white jersey which is designated for the defense with recently returned missionary, Solomone Kafu having switched over from defensive line to the offensive line.
The first day saw freshman Houston Reynolds running with the ones along the offensive line at the left guard spot. Braden Hansen was in at right guard, with Terence Brown at center, Matt Reynolds and left tackle and Braden Brown at right tackle.
The second group has Ryker Mathews at left tackle, Marco Thorson at left guard, Blair Tushaus at center, Walter Kahaialii at right guard, and Famika Anae at right tackle.
Notable recruits at practice included Cougar commit Brayden Kearsley, and Pleasant Grove's Brandon Fanaika.
BYU camp report
DAY 1: On a hot afternoon with temperatures in the 90s, BYU opened camp with a one-hour session for newcomers, followed by a 90-minute session with the veterans.
STANDOUTS: Wide receivers Ross Apo and Rhen Brown each caught a touchdown pass from Jake Heaps, who completed 8-of-9 passes for 108 yards.
INJURIES: Running back Joshua Quezada sat out due to a moderate ankle sprain.
NEXT UP: BYU will return to practice Monday afternoon with a session for the newcomers, followed by a session with the veterans.
Contributing: Brandon Gurney