PROVO — It was only Day One of BYU's fall camp, but senior quarterback Riley Nelson already has a pretty good idea of his team's personality and identity — based on offseason workouts.
"I'd say we're a cohesive group that's really hungry. We're confident, but not overconfident," Nelson said after Thursday afternoon's 2½-hour practice session in the sweltering heat. "We know if we do things the right way, focusing in on every drill and every practice, not looking ahead to the future but focusing on the present, we're confident if we do those things, that culmination of work will amount to hopefully a win in week one and then start all over in week two. As we approach the season like that, we feel good about our chances. … It was a good first day."
The Cougars open the season Aug. 30 at home against Washington State.
While coach Bronco Mendenhall liked much of what he saw on the first day of practice, he knows his team has a ways to go in order to be ready for the opener.
"It was just good to be back with the guys again," said Mendenhall, who enters his eighth season at the helm. "There's a lot of work to do. It always makes you appreciate what a team looks like at the end of a season. It makes you appreciate how hard it is to win games, and to be in bowl games and win those. Each year you start over and see the reference point. They worked hard. I think their preparation, physically, is a little bit past maybe what I had expected it to be. Enthusiasm is good. Execution is a little rusty, but good leadership. … They're confident, they're optimistic, they're excited and realistic about where the program is and what they're going to have to do and how much work that lies ahead. But they think they're capable."
The Cougars are paying close attention to detail — in the way they warm up, in the way they execute drills, and even the way they recover after practice. One of the new sights at practice was a collection of cold tubs near the field for the players to use afterwards as part of the program's new conditioning and fitness regimen.
Mendenhall was not pleased with the way his players warmed up at the start of practice, so he subjected them to extended warmups.
"We have to learn to meet his expectations. We've asked him to hold us to a very high standard," Nelson said. "We've got a lot of veteran guys and a lot of guys who have been through it before. Those young guys, the learning curve is going to be really steep."
"The team responded well to the beginning of practice with the structure that we have," said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. "It was pretty intense. Then it finally cooled off after we got in the swing of things."
The players cooled off, literally, in the ice tubs provided after the session, which will be part of every practice.
"We're taking it serious. We're trying to recover," said Van Noy. "We're trying to get better as many ways as we can. The coaches recognize that, the trainers recognize that. It's cool that our program is moving forward and we're happy about that."
The Cougars practiced in helmets with no pads Thursday, as per NCAA rules. During the 11-on-11 session, the ball did not advance and the chains did not move.
"Once the chains move, you're playing football," Mendenhall explained. "And when you're playing football, it's competitive. When it's competitive, guys like to tackle. When they tackle without pads — that's the reason you put on pads. And we don't have pads on today."
Among the key aspects of this fall camp includes doing all of the little things right, Mendenhall added.
"Maybe a little bit more distinction in tempo, when we're in pads, no pads or shells, and trying to maintain health, focus on execution, and just keep cleaner play," the coach said. "The volume of team plays is going up, so hopefully that can add to consistency, early on."
As for his role on the team, Nelson isn't putting undue pressure on himself. He is encouraged by the talent around him.
"I look at myself as one cog in the machine, another piece of the puzzle," he said. "I do have a high-profile position and that's kind of the nature of the game and I definitely embrace that. I see myself as a distributor. My role in the offense is to get the ball into the hands of our playmakers as quickly and efficiently as I can. Those are my goals going into the season."
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