PROVO — There are a lot of things BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall could have done after his team lost to Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl last December.
He could have remained mad, which he was.
He could have spent time looking over the shoulder of defensive coordinator Nick Howell. He could have worked more with the nose tackles on the defensive line. He could have asked some coaches to reapply for their jobs in the offseason. He could have been content with the fact that over the last 40 years, BYU has earned more bowl bids (32) than any other team west of Nebraska.
Fact is, the loss to Washington was Mendenhall’s first bowl defeat in five years.
In 2008 the Cougars lost to Arizona 31-21 in Las Vegas. Between that bowl and the 2013 Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, BYU had won four in a row, racking up postseason victories over Oregon State, UTEP, Tulsa and San Diego State.
So, what to do?
Mendenhall decided to work with his offensive line and have a meeting of the minds with Garett Tujague and offensive coordinator Robert Anae. Three veteran coaches pooled their skills together to try and help that position group.
I asked Mendenhall to elaborate on the move during BYU’s football media day a week ago.
“What I’d like to see is a more dominant culture being built,” he answered.
“When I’ve seen BYU play at its best, the teams I’ve watched in the past, they are physically dominant, they are very tough. They are on the edge of playing within the rules because they are so aggressive.”
Mendenhall said you often hear or read about the most successful teams in the country being the most penalized.
“We’d like our offensive line to take more chances at finishing blocks and developing a mindset that is more dominant. There is a cultural element that needs to happen.”
Given the number of plays BYU is asking its offense to play and the pace at which the Cougars do it, there has to be an adjustment. He wanted to jump in and help.
“Now, in our specific system, we have to be able to be conditioned at a level that is unlike any BYU offensive line ever," said Mendenhall. "Last year we got by with a large number of players playing, basically being the equivalent of a single player. What we needed to do was increase the conditioning program for our players, especially the offensive linemen. The body fats and their conditioning had to be re-targeted. It wasn’t a transition, but we were transforming them. It was a physical transformation and a cultural transformation, not a performance transformation.”
In other words, the way BYU is running the football and then shifting to get in pass protection is just the opposite of what the offense has been doing when it passes first and then runs occasionally, Mendenhall explained.
“It’s been a unique transition and from what I saw last season and this spring, those issues are being addressed in this offseason. It’s been fun to have some influence.”
Mendenhall said another aspect of his help is creating a new line of thinking for the offense — from a defensive coach perspective.
“Since the end of last season, I’ve spent every meeting through spring practice sitting with our offense and the main perspective I could lend is not what (defenses) are doing but why they are doing it. So many offensive coaches can identify what front it is, what the twist is or what the blitz is (by the defense), but a lot of times that stops short of knowing the rationale behind it.
“If you can address the why strategically, you can actually stay ahead of that.”
Mendenhall said this design tweak has been fun for him.
“Being on a different side, sharing different experiences and seeing things through different lenses has been interesting, but more importantly, it may be making a contribution to our team to improve in a different way,” he concluded.
So, there’s a twist to the offseason design by Mendenhall.
It makes for interesting summer fodder.
By fall, it will be more interesting to see if the move forges any obvious results.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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