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Dick Harmon: New mission policy impacts BYU football recruiting in a big way

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 6:53 p.m. MDT

Taysom Hill, second from left, of the Brigham Young Cougars celebrates scoring BYU's only touchdown during NCAA football in Boise, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY —

The new minimum age requirement of 18 for LDS missionary service will immediately impact college recruiting of athletes and rosters at all universities — especially in Utah.

And nowhere will the impact be felt more than at BYU, whose rosters are lined with more returning LDS missionaries than any other athletic program. BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall currently has 38 players serving missions in 17 different countries around the world.

To say this new decision impacts BYU sports is an understatement. It changed the world for LDS athletes who are now 17 and juniors or seniors in high school.

"We've already received tweets from people on this," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve. "They can go sooner and return sooner and play four straight years."

Tanner Mangum of Eagle, Idaho, is an Elite 11 quarterback and has been standing around at BYU's practices this fall semester with a missionary call in hand as he attends school, paying his own way. If he'd been able to serve when he turned 18, Mangum may have already been in missionary service.

Magnum said Saturday the new policy is great for the church's missionary work.

"I'm not sure if I would have gone right out of high school or not," he said. "I'm fully enjoying my time at BYU right now and looking forward to leaving for my mission to Chile in January. In the long term, it didn't make a difference for me."

The No. 1 high school recruit in America, Chicago's Jabari Parker, just narrowed his college choices down to five schools including Duke, Michigan State and BYU. As he considers missionary service and his future choice of college — and if and when he might leave early for the NBA — the door just opened for him to put it all on hold if he becomes a full-time missionary right after high school, if he so chooses.

Dallin Leavitt, a Portland, Ore., safety/linebacker and 2013 BYU commit, is enjoying his senior year at Central Catholic High and is 18 years old. The new policy allows Leavitt to leave for a mission right after high school instead of attending BYU for a semester in 2013. Leavitt won't do this, he explained Saturday, because he believes he needs the experience of living away from home in college before going on a mission. "I think it is good, however, to now have more flexibility," he said.

BYU basketball coach Dave Rose has obtained commitments from recruits in the high school graduating class of 2013 that could give him a top-five recruiting class if it contains Parker.

Like all BYU coaches, managing missionaries is a Rubik's Cube. But if you add the missionary departure-and-return component, his job is like none other.

Rose has a board that helps him organize when recruitsexpect to serve missions, some have given notice of their intentions. That spreadsheet could be outdated if mission plans change due to the new policy.

That happened in the case Lone Peak guard Nick Emery, already 18 in September; hes a guy who planned on serving his mission next fall at 19. After he learned of the new policy, Emery moved mission plans to immediately after his high school graduation so he can return and play four years. Another case is Emery's Lone Peak teammate, forward Eric Mika, who tweeted Saturday the new guideline specifically targets him and his choices.

"Well, that's a direct impact on me if I've ever heard one in conference," read his tweet.

In another tweet, Mika, who was named one of the top seven basketball players at a national AAU tournament in Milwaukee this summer, said: "Still don't know what to think or say right now … I'm frozen solid but my head is spinning. Turn 18 in four months."

He let his Twitter followers know he's still wrapping his mind around life right now, but his overall plan is still the same.

"It's a good thing. It will definitely give players and their parents something to think about," said Marty Haws, father of Lone Peak star TJ Haws, who has planned to play one year (2013) with his older brother Tyler Haws at BYU before missionary service.

"It's too early to know about many of those decisions, but definitely it could change plans for some," Marty Haws said. "Thing is, Rose has been recruiting with players telling him their plans for missions and he's deciding on scholarships, it's tough for him to make changes. If his recruits change dates, it will have ramifications for sure."

Generally speaking, for Utah, Utah State, BYU, SUU, UVU, Weber State and the state's other colleges, the new announcement means more flexibility in plans of their recruits. And they could all have to scramble if recruits leave earlier than expected.

Specifically, from a development standpoint, an LDS recruit may benefit from the earlier departure choice because he can accept a mission call right out of high school, serve two years and return and prepare for four straight years of athletic competition with a redshirt choice intact. This provides a big training advantage, but also allows them a chance to change their minds and transfer to another school upon finishing their church work.

This may benefit BYU, a school that has received LDS missionaries who originally signed with other schools. It even prompted NCAA legislation to penalize such decisions, if a player enrolls at that school before a mission. Recent such player movements include current quarterback Riley Nelson (Utah State) and safety Michael Wadsworth (Hawaii). The freshman quarterback who led BYU to a win over USU on Friday night, Taysom Hill, signed with Stanford out of high school, but never attended there before his mission.

It definitely means coaches will have to stagger their scholarships with coming and goings of missionaries under the new guidelines.

"For me, it won't change my plans," Leavitt said. "I now have a choice of going earlier than I planned, but I'm not prepared as I should be to living outside my home, and going away to college before a mission will help me learn things I need to know. It isn't a spiritual issue. I'll play a semester and hope to have an immediate impact in football before I choose to go."

When the minimum age for missionaries was 19, it placed many young men in limbo for a year. It placed them in a position where they could be distracted from serving missions with athletics, dating relationships, school and professions.

When NFL quarterback John Beck, a late-bloomer, played high school football at Mountain View High in Arizona, he didn't leave for a mission to Portugal until November after high school graduation when he turned 19. In essence, Beck then missed three full football seasons and, since he returned in November, it was almost four years until he got in a game atmosphere.

That delay may not have been the best for his football career, but it helped immensely in getting recruited because he grew four inches from his junior year of high school upon his return from a mission as a 21-year-old to BYU.

In BYU circles, there is talk that the new church announcement could mean there will be few male freshmen under age 20 on campus.

There is talk the average age of BYU athletes, a common criticism of the school's opponents, will be reduced.

Regardless, Saturday's policy change means things will not be the same in the athletic world where missionaries are involved.

Email: dharmon@desnews.com

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