PROVO Every year, BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is asked the same question: How are you going to replace the players you've lost? And, every year, he pretty much gives the same answer, something along the lines of "with the guys we already have in the program."
That question has popped up frequently since the end of the 2007 season, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, where the Cougars have seen the departure of eight starters from a defense that was ranked No. 9 nationally in both rushing defense and scoring defense last season.
On the first day of fall camp, the question was posed again.
"I've tried to express that since last year when the questions came, how would we do it?" Mendenhall replied. "I think, again, it's the next group of players who have been developed in this program. There will be some surprise early, and then at the end it's, oh, that's just the next group of BYU defensive players. That's my feeling now. It might be different at the end of the year, but I'm confident. The system is already in place. There will be new names and new faces this year, but the system and the results will be similar to the past three years."
Emblematic of that philosophy, the cover of last year's media guide featured four identifiable BYU players wearing helmets and, behind them, an anonymous and endless sea of blue-and-white helmets. That's Mendenhall's goal, to develop waves of players who can step in and perform seamlessly in the place of the player ahead of him.
As former Cougar linebacker Bryan Kehl, who now plays with the New York Giants, put it, "Coach Mendenhall said it's not so much about the four helmets in front, it's about the endless sea behind. The way he envisions the program is both through injury and through graduation, any one guy can go down and there's a wave, a sea, behind."
During Mendenhall's tenure, that approach has proven to be successful. Take last season, for instance. The Cougars lost two of their top safeties, Dustin Gabriel and David Tafuna, to injuries during fall camp. Unheralded Corby Hodgkiss ended up turning in a sensational season, though with little fanfare. Then, toward the end of the year, BYU lost another starting safety, Quinn Gooch, to a season-ending injury. But the Cougars didn't panic. They simply replaced him with Kellen Fowler, who performed well and is this year's starter at free safety.
"We've had a lot of guys step in the last couple of years," said senior linebacker David Nixon. "It will continue to be that way. Once I graduate and move on, someone else will step in."
During fall camp, BYU's defense has been affected by a variety of injuries linebacker Matt Bauman entered fall camp with a bone contusion on his foot after a scooter accident, for instance but backups have come in and been assimilated relatively quickly.
"The system allows for guys to step in," Nixon said. "More than anything, the credit goes to our coaches. They prepare us and give each guy enough reps to be ready. The coaches spend as much time with the third-string guys as the first-string guys, coaching them up. That's one thing I love about our coaching staff. They understand the importance of each player and the contribution they have to make to the team. You see the third team getting just as many reps as the first team. You see the third team go against the first team. Anytime you get quality reps against the first team, it's only going to make you better."
Mendenhall is constantly looking to improve his team, both collectively and individually, in areas that he focuses on position-mastery, execution and competitive will.
The approach is working."I think you now start to talk about program maturity. Is a program defined by its individuals or is the program defined by how it develops players?" Mendenhall said. "That will be a great test as to where exactly we are. We believe we have great, young talent. What will be scrutinized and what will be evaluated is if the program is ready to just simply plug in new players that have been developed, that have been taught, that have been directed towards leadership and just need experience and opportunity."
BYU 2008 schedule
Aug. 30 ... N. Iowa, 4 p.m.
Sep. 6 ... at Washington, 1 p.m.
Sep. 13 ... UCLA, 1:30 p.m.
Sep. 20 ... Wyoming, 1 p.m.
Oct. 3 ... at Utah St., 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 ... New Mexico, 4 p.m.
Oct. 16 ... at TCU, 6 p.m.
Oct. 25 ... UNLV, noon
Nov. 1 ... at Colorado St., 4 p.m.
Nov. 8 ... San Diego St., noon
Nov. 15 ... at Air Force, 1:30 p.m.