PROVO — From the outset, first-year BYU receivers coach Ben Cahoon has emphasized the fundamentals.
That's not surprising, considering the Canadian Football League's all-time leader in receptions starred for 13 years in the CFL by perfecting the art of running precise routes and consistently catching the ball.
"The first day he got here, he put us through drills, and got our footwork right," recalled redshirt freshman wideout Ross Apo. "Ever since then, we've been rolling."
Through the first half of the 2010 season, BYU's receivers were plagued by injuries and dropped passes. Those drops were one of several factors that led to the Cougars' woeful offensive performance through the first seven games. A few days into fall camp, coach Bronco Mendenhall said Cahoon is making a big difference with the receivers.
"I watch every rep of every position group every day," Mendenhall said. "Just the precision, starting from their stance, to the way they stem the defensive back, to the way they break, to the way they catch the ball, to the way they finish when they catch the ball — the subtleties are showing up all over the place. They're catching the ball more consistently. So I think coach Cahoon is having an influence. It's a group that needs an influence. They're relatively young at some of the spots. They need maturity and development. I think they're responding well to him."
So far, Cahoon is pleased with the effort of his receivers.
"They're getting better. It matters to them, and that's huge," he said. "They're putting the work in during drills. They're trying to transfer those techniques we're working on in drills."
Dropped passes are a product of a lack of focus, Cahoon said. "I believe it's mostly mental, being lazy with your eyes. A lot of it is confidence, being scared to drop the ball. You have a drop or two, it kind of propagates. It's contagious. But so far we're catching the ball really well ... I'm trying to improve a lot of areas of the position. Without being real specific, we're just trying to come off the ball hard, and stay low and get in and out of breaks better. That's a process and it's not a quick fix. But there has been progress made."
Cahoon is also trying to instill a certain identity among the wideouts.
"I'd like to see guys step up," he said. "I like to see confidence throughout the group, a little bit of a swagger, that they know that they're the playmakers and they're guys who want the ball. I think that's important. You can't play this position scared."
The Cougars boast a stable of talented receivers that possess a variety of sizes and skill sets. Apo (6-foot-3) and Cody Hoffman (6-foot-4) are tall and athletic — not typical BYU receivers.
Does Cahoon remember seeing anybody that looked like Apo and Hoffman when he played at BYU in the mid-1990s?
"They played basketball," Cahoon joked. "(Apo and Hoffman) are young and they're raw, but they're great athletes. If they continue to work hard, they're going to be forces to be reckoned with."
BYU boasts significant depth at receiver, with McKay Jacobson, Spencer Hafoka, Rhen Brown and JD Falslev in the mix. Which players will see the most playing time?
"The guys who know what they're doing, and don't make mental mistakes, but also can get open and create separation on routes, and then obviously catch the ball," Cahoon said. "Guys who are getting open and catching the ball most consistently are the guys who are going to play for us. It's a long season and our challenge is to improve every single day."
Making the transition from player to coach hasn't always been easy for Cahoon, who retired from professional football in January. But he has found that teaching can be gratifying.
"I just get thrilled when I see my guys have success and try new things and when it works, I get chills and I get emotional," Cahoon said. "That's really fun and I've had plenty of those moments the first couple of days."
BYU Camp Box
DAY 3: For the Cougars' first morning practice of fall camp, coach Bronco Mendenhall changed the routine and had his team practice in the indoor practice facility. It was also their first practice in shoulder pads.
STANDOUTS: Quarterback Jake Heaps connected with wide receiver Ross Apo on a 70-yard touchdown pass. Defensive lineman Hebron Fangupo picked off Riley Nelson and rumbled for a TD, though the play had already been whistled dead. Placekicker Justin Sorensen nailed a 52-yard field goal and just missed on a pair of 67-yard attempts.
INJURIES: Several players, like running back Joshua Quezada (ankle), linebacker Brandon Ogletree (groin) are dinged up, but the most concerning is tight end Kaneakua Friel's hamstring.
NEXT UP: The Cougars will hold another morning practice session Wednesday.