PROVO — It certainly was not the start that BYU wanted in its first scrimmage of fall camp.
While blocking for the return team on the opening kickoff, sophomore Iona Pritchard suffered a season-ending injury — a broken leg and dislocated ankle — that will require surgery.
That injury cast a pall on the scrimmage for the Cougars and the estimated 7,000 fans that turned out to LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday morning.
"Losing Pritchard on the very first play, you could tell the air went out of the stadium," said linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, who oversees the kickoff return team. "The emotion was lost the rest of the scrimmage, which was unfortunate for him, first of all. But then the players were playing tentative. It's hard to lose a guy like that on our kickoff team because he was going to be a stud.
As Pritchard lay on the turf, receiving medical attention, players on both the offense and defense walked onto the field to support him.
"He was apologizing for being hurt," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "Amazing."
Pritchard, who was carted off the field, was having an outstanding fall camp as a fullback, said Mendenhall, who compared Pritchard to former Cougar fullback Manase Tonga.
"Iona's role was continuing to expand. We really believed he was another version of Manase," Mendenhall said, adding that seeing a player suffer an injury like that is "the worst part of coaching."
Once the scrimmage began, quarterback Jake Heaps engineered a 78-yard touchdown drive on the first series. Heaps went 5-for-5, including a 15-yard TD pass to McKay Jacobson.
While it was the offense's only touchdown of the day, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman liked what they saw.
"I think the offensive line was maybe the most cohesive group that stood out the most. I liked how physical they were today," Mendenhall said. "Jake and the receivers played about how they had during camp. But I thought the biggest step forward was our physical play at the offensive line and how we ran the ball."
Doman said the offense needs to limit "mental mistakes," such as false start penalties.
"We mounted some good drives and I think we're on our way," Doman said. "We didn't make many physical mistakes. We've got guys who make physical plays. The mental (part of the game) is going to come after the physical."
On the day, Heaps completed 7-of-9 passes for 105 yards.
"Jake missed a touchdown throw on a corner route," Doman said. "He bulleted it. He threw a fast ball rather than a changeup. He'll learn. It was a brand new play that we put in today. Other than that, he made every single play."
"I was really impressed with the way Jake played. He continues to improve and get better," Mendenhall said. "I like his poise, I like his maturity. I like where he's putting the football."
Heaps was pleased with the offense, but knows theres still work to do.
"I feel like everything's clicking," Heaps said. "As on offense, we're doing really well and becoming a good football team. That's making plays. For us to be a great offense, I have to play well and read the plays and lead this team. I feel confident in that. I made a few mistakes out there that I'll get corrected and make sure that they don't happen again. Overall, I love this football team and our offense."
Mendenhall's evaluation of the defense?
"The general execution was more solid. Without a lot of frills and variety, it seemed the execution was a little bit more sound," he said. "I would have liked to see the defensive front play more physical today. And I think our play-action concentration in the secondary could improve. But it's stepping forward. It's continuing progress."
With the first week of fall camp in the books, and the season-opener at Ole Miss just three weeks away, the Cougars are simply looking to get better.
"We've got two-a-days all next week and we're looking to make huge improvements," Heaps said. "We're looking to cut down on the mental errors and looking forward to crisping up everything, from route-running to throwing the football to my reads When we're able to do that, we'll be a great football team."
READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL: BYU fans came out in droves for Saturday's scrimmage.
"It's so fun to be a BYU Cougar right now and to be part of this football program," Doman said. "The interest from our fans, they came out more today than I've seen at a spring game. Im glad they feel that way and we're motivated to make it fun for them."
"My sense is, I've never seen an opening scrimmage with this much support, attention and excitement," Mendenhall said. "That's was just when I was driving over. I thought something else might be going on on campus as well. It's pretty neat."
MORE ON PRITCHARD: Though the former Bingham High star recently returned home from a mission, he had made an immediate impact.
"He was going to be depended upon heavily," Mendenhall said. "So it's a big loss because of how he's played already in fall camp. We were excited about him and what he could do for our offense."
The Cougars will rely more on Mike Alisa in Pritchard's absence.
"There will have to be some adjustment now," Mendenhall said. "Fortunately, we're deep at running back. We have a fullback, Mike Alisa, (who is) a cross-trained type of player."
Heaps said he'll miss having Pritchard on the field.
"He's done a fantastic job in fall camp. I've been blown away by how well he's done. He's just off a mission and he's going to be a great player for us at BYU. It's tough to see a guy go through an injury like that."
POSITION BATTLES: With several open positions on the offense and defense, Mendenhall said he's hoping to use Saturday's scrimmage "as an evaluation tool and that will be our intent. My hope is next week I'll like to be able to say that, 'We're more solid here' and, 'This is still dead even.' We'll have to see."
Preston Hadley and Corby Eason saw significant time with the first team defense at the cornerback positions, while Houston Reynolds and Marco Thorson continued to rotate at left guard.
As for the tight ends, Marcus Mathews led all receivers with 44 yards on two catches. Austin Holt had a 14-yard reception.
"I thought there was great progress by (the tight ends) today," Doman said. "The reason why BYU's been so successful in the past is because inside the box, the running backs and the tight ends have been difficult for teams to defend. If we can continue to do that at a really high level, which I believe we can with this group, then we'll continue the tradition of being great in that area. One guy may emerge. No one has. If it remains a committee, fine. But I think one guy will emerge before we're done."
LIFE OF RILEY: Backup quarterback Riley Nelson completed 4-of-6 passes for 52 yards. James Lark was 0-for-2 and Jason Munns was 2-for-4 for 20 yards.
Doman said he would like to find a role for Nelson.
"Riley's a guy that needs to be used in this offense," Doman said. "He's athletic and we're gradually putting things in. In some way, shape or form, he needs to be utilized to do some things."
EXTRA POINTS: Running back Bryan Kariya rushed five times for 23 yards and JJ Di Luigi had three rushes for 22 yards ... Placekicker Justin Sorensen made field goals from 32, 29 and 47 yards. He missed from 42 and 37 yards. His 37-yard attempt smacked the right upright.
BYU camp report
DAY 7: BYU held its first scrimmage of fall camp Saturday morning in front of about 7,000 fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The scrimmage consisted of about 50 plays.40 comments on this story
STANDOUTS: Quarterback Jake Heaps completed all five of his pass attempts on his first series, culminating with a 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver McKay Jacobson, which was the only TD of the scrimmage. Tight end Marcus Mathews recorded back-to-back catches (22 and 17 yards, respectively) from Heaps on another drive. Defensively, cornerback Preston Hadley made big plays, particularly helping on run support.
INJURIES: Fullback Iona Pritchard suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle on opening kickoff of the scrimmage. He'll undergo surgery and be out three months.
NEXT UP: The Cougars will return to two-a-days Monday with a morning and an afternoon session.