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BYU football: Schedule issues still a challenge with independence

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2012 1:17 p.m. MDT

Players listen BYU football practice Monday, March 26, 2012, in Provo, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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PROVO — One of the most important lessons BYU head football coach Bronco Mendenhall learned from the program's first year of independence had to do with late-season scheduling.

"I probably underestimated the end of the season in terms of, if there's not a conference championship or a significant game right at the tail end, then there's kind of a lull as you get ready for the bowl game," Mendenhall said. "My hope would be, through scheduling, is to always target — and get — a real nice matchup at the end of the season as well. Again, scheduling is difficult, but that's something I would probably do different."

In 2011, the Cougars played arch-rival Utah, now members of the Pac-12, in September, leaving a big-game void in November. BYU ended the regular season with home games against Idaho and New Mexico State, followed by a road contest against Hawaii, a team that was fighting to be bowl-eligible at that time.

"The Hawaii trip was — hard to know how good anybody's going to be — but that was as close to a real nice finish as we were hoping for," Mendenhall said. "That's going to be an imperative part of the program going forward."

The Cougars' late-season schedule in 2012 is similar to last year. Their November slate features a home game against Idaho, followed by road games at San Jose State and New Mexico State.

Things improve in 2013, when BYU is tentatively set to play at Notre Dame on Nov. 16.

Asked if his players are motivated by the schedule during the off-season, Mendenhall said he thinks they are.

"Our players want to play the very best teams they can and on the biggest stages. That's where the program currently is. To say that they're going to let down because they're playing someone that's not perceived to be as good? That's not intentional. But they do get excited, they do like to visit — they had a great time in Austin (Texas) last year. We lost by one point, but that was a game they (were excited about)."

BYU opens the 2012 campaign with home games against Washington State and Weber State before back-to-back road games against Utah and Boise State.

PLAYER-RUN PRACTICES: Once spring practices conclude on Friday, coaches cannot oversee or watch their players, as per NCAA rules, until fall camp opens in August.

The coaching staff wants to ensure that the learning from the spring carries on to the fall. Once spring drills end, it's up to the players to ensure that they're preparing for the season through practices overseen by the players themselves.

"We gave our players a huge chance to get ready and prepared for player-run practices," Mendenhall said Monday. "We can kind of supervise and help them and actually start to shifting and transferring knowledge and the mantle to them as this three-and-a-half or four-month period starts coming. Our practice (Monday) was structured to give oversight and actually start the process of making sure they're most prepared to do that."

This marks the first time in eight years under Mendenhall that the Cougars have held spring practices after the spring scrimmage. Besides preparing the players for the off-season, Mendenhall said "we have a few wrinkles here and there on each side of the ball, in terms of installation, that we'll work on the next two days."

BYU will hold its final two spring practices Wednesday and Friday.

MENDENHALL, D.C.: During the 2010 season, Mendenhall took over defensive coordinator responsibilities, and has maintained that role ever since. He plans to serve as defensive coordinator again this season.

"I'm having so much fun doing it," he said. "I have great assistant coaches now between Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga as young, up-and-coming bright stars. I've shifted a ton of responsibility to them. And the maturity of (assistants) Paul Tidwell and Steve Kaufusi allows me to leave the room and the room functions at a very high level right now, which is why I can keep doing it. I have no intention of stepping down from that. And the players like it."

QUOTABLE: Backup quarterback James Lark on being Riley Nelson's understudy: "I mean, obviously, I didn't dream of being a backup."

Email: jeffc@desnews.com

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