PROVO — Traditionally under coach Bronco Mendenhall, BYU has solidified its recruiting classes months in advance thanks to early commitments.
But on signing day on Wednesday, things were a little different. To find out the fate of a few key recruits, the Cougars had to wait until the final hours.
The Class of 2014, comprised of 20 athletes from all over the country, provided some last-minute drama as the Cougars were in the running for high-profile, highly touted recruits, and battling national powerhouses like USC and Stanford.
And BYU won a few of those recruiting battles.
One national letter of intent — from defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua, who had previously committed to Stanford — didn’t roll in until just before Mendenhall’s press conference at the BYU Broadcasting Building Wednesday afternoon.
“We compete against Stanford frequently,” Mendenhall said. “In Uriah’s case, what a great decision by him. He chose us after already committing and agonizing last night over where he was going to be. That was the highlight of our day. Not that he’s more important, but to see a young man put that much time and effort into his decision and he chose BYU.”
At one point Wednesday, it appeared that four-star linebacker Fred Warner, who had committed to BYU, might flip and choose USC. But ultimately he picked the Cougars.
Mendenhall said that his program “went head-to-head with USC on four recruits. They got one, we got three.”
Mendenhall was referring to the signings of Warner, Leiataua and wide receiver Nick Kurtz, a midyear signee. One recruit the Cougars lost out on to the Trojans was one of the nation’s top-rated offensive guards, Damien Mama, who made his decision in a ceremony that was televised on ESPNU. Mama had narrowed his final three choices to BYU, USC and Alabama.
By broadening its recruiting base, BYU coaches are waiting longer to wrap up their recruiting classes.
“It’s the type of kids we’re going after. It’s different than in the past,” said BYU's 24-year-old player personnel and on-campus recruiting coordinator, Geoff Martzen. “When you’re going after those national guys, they’re going to decide later. They’re going to have more options. It’s a tougher decision for them rather than a kid that was born and raised a BYU fan and wanted to come here all his life.”
Of course, the waiting game produces a higher level of stress as signing day approaches.
“We had four or five spots open and we had a couple of guys drop late,” Martzen said. “It’s outrageous. Even with Fred, a guy that was committed for a year almost, he was scary down at the end. But we pulled him in. Sleepless nights — a few of them.”
But the Cougars can rest easy for now, and bask in the glow of the culmination of plenty of long hours and hard work.
“It might be the strongest (class) in terms of ability and impact," Mendenhall said of his 10th recruiting class at BYU. "As we know, time will tell. But I think we’ve done a really good job of knowing exactly what we’re getting. It’s been a great day. Not just a good day — it’s been a great day.”
This class is smaller than usual, in terms of numbers, due to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints allowing young men to serve missions at an earlier age, Mendenhall said.
“We really expanded where we were going to find (recruits), knowing that with the mission age change the number of spots we had were small this year and they’ll be smaller again next year. That’s directly proportionate to the LDS Church approving young men to serve at 18. We have more players leaving first, which means more are now coming back.”
While 10 of the 20 signees will serve missions before enrolling, a total of 18 returned missionaries have, or will, join the program by next fall.
BYU picked up two transfers on signing day — wide receivers Devon Blackmon and Jordan Leslie. Blackmon is a former high school teammate of Cougar running back Jamaal Williams. He was a top recruit that signed with Oregon but left and enrolled at Riverside City College in California.
Leslie, the stepson of BYU receivers coach Guy Holliday, graduated from UTEP and has one year of eligibility remaining. He is eligible next fall after recording 2,015 receiving yards in three seasons with the Miners.
Meanwhile, the Cougars lost a player Wednesday as well.
Baker Pritchard, a former Bingham High star who signed with BYU a couple of years ago before going on a mission, decided to transfer to Oregon State.
Pritchard returned home from his mission and met with Mendenhall about his future.
“He came to BYU a lot because of his brother (Iona, a BYU fullback) out of high school,” Mendenhall explained. Baker Pritchard wanted to “travel his own road,” Mendenhall said. “And I support him.”
The focus of BYU's recruiting class was on receivers and outside linebackers. The Cougars need to replace their all-time leading receiver, Cody Hoffman, and defensive playmaker Kyle Van Noy.
Mendenhall said the offense will be better equipped to stretch the field with the four receivers BYU signed, which also includes Trey Dye, the son of former Cougar star James Dye. Kurtz, Blackmon and Leslie are expected to make an immediate impact.
And Mendenhall said the new linebackers BYU signed are “all exceptional In a 3-4 defense, you have to have exceptional linebackers.”
BYU’s signees hail from seven different states, including Alabama, North Carolina and Kansas.
“We need to find players,” Martzen said. “We’re dedicated to finding the best and going wherever we have to to get them.”
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