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A bus load of football players left for two years and now they return.

It's a dance BYU does every year with players who serve missions. This year, it's a "take back" that will almost equal the numbers of the recruiting class the Cougars are about to sign on Wednesday.

Bronco Mendenhall will sign 15 football players to national letters of intent this Wednesday. Four are expected to leave for LDS missions before playing. That will leave about a dozen available to enroll in school.

BYU's class of 2011 will be with an asterisk: Missionaries return.

Wednesday will offer a very small recruiting class, the fewest since 2003 when the Cougars signed 13. Universities usually sign 25 recruits a year. But at BYU, the numbers become a massive game of accounting and projecting on white boards and spreadsheets because of church service that interrupts college football careers.

BYU's support for athletes that accept LDS mission calls isn't unusual. It happens at Utah, Utah State, Weber State, SUU and other schools across the country. But in numbers, there is no comparison anywhere with what transpires in Provo.

As some opponents like to complain, BYU's wave of returned missionaries are older, more mature, have filled out physically and allegedly give the Cougars' football program a huge advantage.

Sometimes, yes, it's true. Sometimes it is not, like when you win seven games and your QB and tight ends are freshmen.

BYU will sign just 15 on Wednesday because of promised scholarships held for returning missionaries. So far, nobody knows how many will have muscle and skeletal issues, tape worms or parasites that may plague them through two-a-days.

This "return" includes defensive tackle Ian Dulan, who started at BYU the first semester he arrived on campus from Hawaii. He was part of the recruiting class of 2006 that included Max Hall and McKay Jacobson.

The unique thing about Dulan, who is from Hilo, Hawaii, is that he was a three-year starter for the Cougars and is now returning for his senior season off a mission. It may be the first time this has ever happened with a BYU player.

The wave includes tight end Kaneakua Friel, who played blocking fullback and some tight end duty before he left. Friel is part of the 2007 recruiting class that included J.J. DiLuigi.

The returning missionaries include a high school All-American kicker, Justin Sorensen, and his cousin, linebacker/safety Daniel. Justin started for the Cougars out of Bingham High School.

It also includes former Timpview linebacker Michael Alisa, who played as a freshman in Provo. It includes linebacker Kevan Bills, part of the 2008 recruiting class that included troubled receiver O'Neil Chambers.

It's a group of missionaries that will deliver BYU's defense a lift at linebacker including Alisa, Daniel Sorensen, Spencer Hadley and letterman Iona Pritchard.

The secondary, which lost All-MWC safety Andrew Rich, will return Cameron Comer and Rex Morgan off missions.

On offense, besides Friel, new offensive coordinator Brandon Doman will get returning missionary offensive linemen Brock Stringham and Solomone Kafu.

Some in this batch of players will include athletes who have yet to even enroll at BYU. These include guys like running back Adam Hine, who set the Utah prep high jump record at 7 feet, 2 inches while at Snow Canyon High and returns in June.

In the way BYU does things, they consider these players pieces that replace the 10-body shortfall of Wednesday's signing class of 2011, although Dulan signed five years ago.

As expected, the mission trend continues in 2011.

BYU will lose part of the Jake Heaps class of 2010 for a couple of years. This class, however, includes more scholarship players who have decided to stay for at least another season.

As of today, expectations are that seven roster players will go on missions and not be part of fall drills.

This list of departing players for missions includes offensive lineman Jordan Black, running back Algernon Brown, tight end Chris Copier, offensive lineman Cole Jones, quarterback Dallin McEwen, running back AJ Moore and receiver Luke Nelson.

Yes, this week BYU's system will give the Cougars one of its smallest recruiting classes in history. The last time it happened, it was a disaster.

In 2003, BYU signed 13 players and, although it included stars like David Nixon, Brett Denny, Mitch Payne and Dallas Reynolds, there were no shows like D-lineman Brian Soi and DB Walt Williams. Two others, lineman Ofa Mohetau and Matt Ah You, later left the program. The class shrunk to a remarkable number.

It was disruptive, especially on defense when, in 2004, another setback happened. Although BYU signed 28 that year, a group of freshmen arrived on campus early that summer and got in trouble. No less than 13 were expelled, transferred or quit, and BYU coach Gary Crowton eventually resigned under pressure.

Most of those 13 recruits were defensive players. It's an issue Mendenhall tried to repair in the first three of his six years as head coach by sprinkling in walk-ons, recruits and junior college players like Ben Criddle, Scott Johnson and Rich.

In 2011, the issues of 2003 and 2004 recruiting classes are clearly in the rear view mirror.

In 2011, getting a guy like Dulan and the kicker Sorensen back, will be significant returns on the investment.

In coming months, BYU's roster will benefit greatly from student-athletes who have set aside the game for their faith.

They'll return from outposts all over the world. Most will struggle to get back in shape to play.

As the Cougars head into independence, MWC foes who've used BYU missionaries as an excuse for their own program failures will finally get a break.

And quite frankly, to all that griping, I say ...



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