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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
BYU quarterbacks Brannon Brooks, Kurt McEuen, Brenden Gaskins and Max Hall chat during opening day of practice.

PROVO — Just like a game-week practice in the fall, BYU quarterback Max Hall and wide receiver Austin Collie were the last two players off the field.

When they were finished for the day, they sat down together and spent a few moments talking about how they could hone their playmaking abilities. Never mind that it's March, and the season is still months away.

The Cougars opened spring practices Monday, eager to be playing football again.

"We've got a couple of new concepts in and a couple of new things we're doing," Hall said. "We're just trying to tweak things and get it right. That's what this time is for."

While the BYU offense returns 10 starters, the defense has a host of players learning the defensive scheme and battling for starting jobs.

Conspicuous by his absence on the field was linebacker Bryan Kehl, a fixture on the Cougar defense the past three seasons. Kehl, projected to be selected in the NFL Draft in April, watched Monday's practice from the balcony of the Student Athlete Center.

Hall is not concerned about the BYU defense, despite the fact it has lost eight starters.

"Our defense is going to be solid," he said. "We've got a lot of athletic guys who are going to fill in spots. It's going to be a fun spring. It was a good day all around for the defense and the offense."

"It's nice to have experienced players on offense," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "It didn't take nearly as long for the execution to be as clean maybe as it was the second or third week last year offensively. There are a lot of new faces defensively that are willing. We just need to teach them what to do. Overall, I was really pleased."

The Cougars are loaded at running back, with reigning MWC freshman of the year Harvey Unga, who became the first freshman in school history to run for more than 1,000 yards; Fui Vakapuna, who missed part of last season due to injury; and Manase Tonga. BYU has added redshirt freshman J.J. DiLuigi, who was sidelined for the entire 2007 campaign after suffering a foot injury during fall camp last August, to the mix.

"All of the sudden, that position is deep, which is what we'd like it to be," Mendenhall said.

DiLuigi is happy to be healthy and practicing again.

"It felt great," he said Monday. "It feels good to be out on the field with my team again. I'm learning the offense so I can contribute this year. Anyone who goes through an injury, it's tough for them. It's over now. It's on to this season. It's all in the past."

DiLuigi is looking forward to contributing in the fall.

"I was able to watch how it's supposed to be done last year and now I'm going to try to match that and improve on it," he said.

BYU has also enjoyed an influx of new talent at wide receiver.

"It's nice to have a few returned missionaries back at wide receiver in Luke Ashworth and Spencer Hafoka to give us added size and speed and a little more depth," Mendenhall said. "It was good to have them out there on the first day. That was one of the things I noticed first."

The Cougars will hold 14 more practice sessions, which culminate with the annual Spring Game on April 12 at LaVell Edwards Stadium. The game begins at 1 p.m.

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