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BYU football: Cougars hoping changes pay dividends

Published: Tuesday, April 26 2011 1:12 a.m. MDT

New running backs coach Joe DuPaix walks the sideline during the spring game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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

PROVO — For BYU's football program, spring cleaning began long before spring.

It started last fall.

Sept. 1 will always be a landmark date in school history, the day it declared independence. Exactly one month later, Oct. 1, turned out to be another defining moment, as the Cougars fell at Utah State, 31-16.

The humiliating setback marked their first loss to the Aggies in 17 years. It also gave BYU a four-game losing streak (the longest in 17 years) and an abysmal 1-4 record (its worst start since 1973).

Unfortunately, the game was broadcast on ESPN, its new television partner. Not the kind of impression the Cougars were looking to make on national TV.

In the aftermath of the USU debacle, coach Bronco Mendenhall realized some fundamental changes had to be made if the program was going to reach its potential. That started with firing defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and taking over that role himself. Mendenhall immediately instilled an enthusiasm and work ethic that had been missing. At the time, he explained that he wanted to "recapture the heart and soul" of his team — and it worked.

During a season marked by adversity, the Cougars benefited from a new attitude, and a softer schedule, and won six of their final eight games. Once the season ended, Mendenhall informed his staff he was going to make changes. In January, offensive coordinator Robert Anae took a job at Arizona and receivers coach Patrick Higgins left for Purdue.

While Mendenhall said he doesn't think much about that loss in Logan these days, he admits, "It was kind of the catalyst for a lot of the change. … There's been so much work looking forward and so much work to improve the team; the end of last season did that and the off-season and spring has been a continuation of the season. That part seems all together. The first four games prior to Utah State, that might as well have been the first season. It seems that long ago."

The early-season struggle may have been exactly the springboard the young Cougars needed, not only for last season, but for the future.

"Quite honestly, I try to forget about those first five games," said quarterback Jake Heaps. "It's always a reminder for us as a football team. All these guys were a part of this team. We really remember how hard that was. It was tough. The difference was the way we were practicing, the way we were working and the way we approached our everyday effort from the first half of the season to the second half of the season. That was a huge growing experience and learning experience for us. We've learned what it takes to be great, what it takes to be a BYU football player and represent the tradition and what it stands for. That's the best part."

Mendenhall saw the end-of-season momentum carry over into the spring.

"The only thing that happened last year is we ran out of time. We ran out of games," he said. "We continued to improve and grow and develop and were really gaining a lot of momentum the longer the season went. Our players had a sense of frustration that the season was over. They see (spring ball and the offseason) as a continuation of last year."

To ensure that his team has a jumpstart on next season, Mendenhall announced team captains and position leadership council just days after spring practice ended, rather than wait until fall camp.

"This particular team is anxious to go faster and harder in this time period than our other teams," Mendenhall explained. "This team is anxious to lead and keep going, so I thought it would be best to put that leadership in place a little earlier."

Changes at the top

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