PROVO — Bronco Mendenhall is walking a fine line in an extremely conservative approach to keeping BYU's football team healthy.
On one hand, he's limiting the amount of physical play — those takedowns and collisions — which is wise for most programs the first week of fall camp.
On the other hand, he's controlling the seeds that sprout into what the game of football is all about — being macho, knocking the other guy on his butt, imposing your will on others, pushing the boundaries of emotional and physical violence in a game that is really an organized fight.
Anybody who has played against Mendenhall's football teams over his tenure at BYU and even at New Mexico are witnesses to how physical his players play in games.
But the heightened emphasis on limiting hits and tackles the first week is an experiment he is weighing and balancing daily.
If he reins it in, do players get frustrated because they simply want to hit somebody hard? If he reins it in, do his players miss out on handling and dealing with contact? If he reins it in, does he risk underpreparing his team for the rigors of what a game delivers? Does he rob players of critical timing issues of finishing things to the ground and a whistle?
It's been an interesting philosophy to witness the past week in Cougar camp.
As his morning session on Friday ended, Mendenhall said he was impressed with how his model has worked and he may mold it some more. After a week of what he said was a great volume of work, he had one player, offensive lineman Brock Stringham, come up lame with a repeat ankle sprain.
In nine practices since fall practice began, Thursday's open scrimmage in LaVell Edwards Stadium was the first one in full pads. Even on that day, Mendenhall limited veteran players, key potential starters and so-called stars to either cameo appearances or barely a play or two.
He's been very protective of players, cutting one practice short this week after safety Daniel Sorensen smashed into running back Michael Alisa. He then administered a grueling up-and-down jumping drill where players had to repeatedly jump over hurdles. It looked like punishment, and it was.
It may be due to the conservative approach, it may be protecting players or it could be that this edition of Mendenhall's squad, dominated by 29 seniors, is in better condition than in past years. But he's got a lot of players still standing and running instead of limping or in casts.
"It's been really, really efficient and really, really effective," Mendenhall said of this practice model.
"It's a step in the right direction and an improvement for our program. It could be integrated more than what we're doing. It is certainly a great start."
In Thursday's scrimmage, the squad did hit, albeit it was primarily newcomers and younger players. In 83 plays, only Stringham came out with what could be determined as an injury serious enough that it kept him out of practice on Friday. And at that, it was a repeat sprain.
BYU has struggled with fall camp maladies over the past decade or so. The two most serious included a broken leg by honor-bound offensive lineman Ben Archibald in one of the first hitting drills of 2001. Last year, Iona Pritchard, a key candidate to become another Manase Tonga, busted his ankle on the opening kickoff of the first scrimmage of 2011.
Then there's been a steady train of hamstring pulls that plagued Mendenhall's squad early in his tenure as coach.
In the past year, Mendenhall has deployed new training and warm-up techniques, many of them introduced this fall before practices. He's also enlisted conditioning coaching from BYU's nationally successful men's and women's track programs, plus experts from an NFL combine preparation team.
After a week, he has fewer guys sidelined with injuries that could take them out of the season-opener against Washington State.
When you have more bodies, you have more depth. When you have more depth, you can hold longer and more meaningful practices that do not fatigue your top-of-the-line stars.
Hitting the other guy? Letting the horses out of the corral?
Bronco believes there is time for that.
He's just not going to race to get there because it's the manly thing that's expected.
That isn't how he began things way back in 2005.
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