HENDERSON, Nev. — Bronco Mendenhall has a suspicion.

He doesn't know for sure until fall practice begins, or even the first few games are over, but his defense might be faster than the one that led the Mountain West Conference with the likes of Bryan Kehl, who's now in the NFL.

Is it faster?

"I think so. I haven't watched any seven-on-sevens this summer, and I've only been in the office a few times this month, but I have had players come in and say they really like so-and-so and he's fast. We may be faster," Mendenhall said at this week's MWC football meetings.

The majority of BYU's defense from the 11-2 season of 2007 is gone, including linebackers Kehl, Kelly Poppinga and three of their four starting defensive backs. Up front, the Cougars may have acquired more foot speed in the transition from last year, and at least one player, MWC sack leader Jan Jorgensen, says he has the proof — his own case.

"I'm bigger, faster and stronger than I've ever been.

I'm pushing 270 now, but I'll lose five of that soon during two-a-days," he said.

"But when we were timed in 40s, I ran the fastest time since I was 230 pounds and in high school. My pro agility times and strength were really good."

Jorgensen ran a 4.71 time in the 40-yard dash last month. "I was very happy with it," he said.

And the rest of the defense?

"I can't say for everybody. But a lot of guys have improved a lot.

"We should be very good, if we stay healthy," said Jorgensen.

He also believes the return of nose tackle Russell Tialeavea from an ACL injury in two-a-days last summer will boost the Cougars' defense. He told reporters on Monday that at times, when Tialeavea is on the field, he is the best player on both sides of the line.

"Russell is amazing," said Jorgensen. "For a 300-pounder, he has the quickest feet and the quickest hands. It's nice to play with him because he's one of those guys who you can look over the line in his eyes and we both automatically know what the other is thinking."

Tialeavea weighs in at 305 pounds, a loss of 30 pounds from last summer, when he planned on playing his sophomore season after starting as a freshman in 2006.

"So, to have someone like that to line up with gives me so much more confidence," Jorgensen said. "That's not to say I didn't have confidence in Ian (Dulan) playing the nose guard last year. I was just so comfortable with Russell out there and I was used to playing with him."

Tialeavea spent the year out of football, forging a close relationship with BYU conditioning coach Jay Omer. That link helped cement Tialeavea's passion to work hard and get the most out of himself.

"The report I get from coach Omer is that Russell has worked harder more consistently than at any time in his BYU career," said Mendenhall.

Added Jorgensen, "They kind of formed a bond last year, and I think because of that coach Omer has been able to help Russell. And as a result, Russell has worked out as hard as he ever has in his life this off season, and that's because of that relationship. It's been beneficial to him."

Mendenhall said he has a list of individual 40 times on his desk, but he hasn't digested them or tried to make sense of what they mean.

"There is such a discrepancy between hand times and electronic times," said Mendenhall. "Players will give you their hand-held times. Coach Omer will take their electronic times and that can mean a difference in two-tenths of a second, a huge jump.

"I'd just as soon players think they're 4.5 instead of 4.7. It doesn't matter to me. I have the results, but they don't mean anything to me. It's more of position mastery and if they can do their job. We play faster teams in our league. And arguably we play more talented teams at some positions in our league.

"The cohesion and execution will win at the end of the day, and that's where I'd like to spend our time," Mendenhall said. "The players like to focus on the times, but that's not as important to me."

EXTRA POINTS: Mendenhall said he might use as many as six walk-ons this fall. "It's too early to anticipate, but there will be a handful. I can already see through spring practice. It will be that way as long as I'm the coach. There just isn't that much difference in our best walk-ons and our scholarship players. What one may lack in terms of size, speed or athletic ability, they make up for it in heart and attitude. So I'd say there might be as many as five or six who could end up playing for us in some role. ... Since Mendenhall got the BYU job, he's awarded 20 scholarships to walk-ons. "I haven't heard of a number that close anywhere," he said. "I think all that is doing is perpetuating a cycle of other players doing that ... and creating a cycle. ... All that's being presented is an opportunity, and I like that because it's more of a pure form of motive of why you go to a school."


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com