PROVO For BYU running back J.J. DiLuigi, Saturday's Blue-White scrimmage was a big deal.
Playing for the first time in front of a crowd at LaVell Edwards Stadium, the redshirt freshman gave the Cougar coaching staff and the 16,700 fans who turned out on a warm, sunny afternoon a glimpse of his potential. DiLuigi rushed four times for 27 yards and caught a pair of passes for 28 yards in a scrimmage devoid of starters, whom coach Bronco Mendenhall held out in order to protect them from possible injury.
"It felt great. The atmosphere was wonderful," said DiLuigi, who suffered a broken foot during fall camp last year and was sidelined for the 2007 season. "I was just trying to come out and show the coaches that they can have confidence in me and my ability when I go out on the field, that they can trust me to put me in. I'm hoping I did that today for them."
If nothing else, DiLuigi certainly captured Mendenhall's attention.
"J.J., through the spring, has been progressing," Mendenhall said. "I think today was his best day of spring practice. He had more touches and showed some versatility. Quite frankly, Wayne Latu, to this point, had been ahead of J.J. (on the depth chart). Wayne has had an outstanding spring. Today, J.J. showed the race is tighter for that next running-back spot between he and Wayne. He closed that gap. He had a chance, and I think he made the most of it."
Of course, the Cougars have a stable-full of other running backs at their disposal Harvey Unga, Fui Vakapuna and Manase Tonga. But the 5-foot-9, 196-pound DiLuigi displayed what he can bring to the BYU offense.
Other inexperienced players received an opportunity to shine, too, during the 40-play scrimmage.
"Everybody came out to play," said DiLuigi. "This was a real game for us, too. The first guys sat down and let us play our game and show the coaches what we can do. It was a good day for all of us."
"A lot of guys stood out to me," said starting wide receiver Austin Collie. "J.J. did an exceptional job. He's a great runner. He's shifty and can make people miss. (Wide receiver) Spencer (Hafoka) had a couple of great grabs and runs. It's promising to see the twos do so well and realize that we do have depth and realize that we have a lot of talented guys on the team. I think that's what we found out today."
Mendenhall declared the scrimmage a success.
"I think the format was exactly right. That was the most positive thing of the day," he said.
"We got a chance to give a ton of players who haven't had a lot of game experience live work in front of a good crowd. They had a chance to demonstrate where they stand. We have a very good idea of the two-deep. What we found out today, possibly, are those who might travel, might be involved with special teams, might be the next tier of players."
Just as importantly, Mendenhall added, the Cougars escaped the event without any injuries.
Speaking of injuries, DiLuigi said he feels healthy now and the frustration he felt as a result of not being able to play a year ago is gone.
"It was frustrating at times. But the coaches, my teammates and my family stood by me and made it more pleasant for me," DiLuigi said. "That's all in the past. We've already gone through a whole spring ball now. It's just on to fall. It's going to be an exciting summer."
Mendenhall was pleased with what his team accomplished during the spring.
"It was exactly what we needed. We got the right kind of work done, we got the right players identified," he said. "We had the right format and we only lost one player (to injury), which is one player too many."
Linebacker Terrance Hooks sustained a torn patella tendon in his left knee last week. He underwent surgery and is expected to be out in six to eight months.
"I thought spring was exceptional. As a team, we did some really good things and got a whole heck of a lot better," Collie said. "Especially the defense. The defense came ready to play the entire spring. That only helps us as an offense and as a team. I believe that we're ready. We're a great team, and we have a great shot at our main goal."
The Cougars open the 2008 season Aug. 30 at home against Northern Iowa."Our focus now is on more execution and starting to believe that we can do this that we are one of the best teams in the nation," Collie said. "I think that's one of the things that's going to help us coming into this season confidence in knowing that we can go undefeated and be a BCS team."
NOTES: Mendenhall said Bingham High prep All-American Justin Sorensen will challenge Mitch Payne for the starting placekicking job in fall camp. Payne hit a couple of field goals from 30-plus yards and missed a 58-yarder that clanged off the corner of the upright and crossbar Saturday. Sorensen attended Saturday's scrimmage ... In the scrimmage, backup quarterback Brenden Gaskins completed 4 of 7 passes for 56 yards. Kurt McEuen was 7-for-10 for 70 yards and an interception while Stephen Covey was 2-for-3 for six yards and an interception ... Defensive backs Andrew Rich and Jameson Frazier recorded the interceptions.