PROVO Going into the 2008 season, BYU's defensive secondary was considered to be the team's most apparent weakness. Two games into the season, that view hasn't changed.
Cougars' coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged this week there have been miscues made, but he added that the safeties and cornerbacks are getting better as BYU prepares to host UCLA on Saturday.
"They're becoming seasoned and experienced on every play. I believe there were probably more receivers behind us in the past two games than maybe the last two years," Mendenhall said.
"Certainly, that has something to do with maturing, and they are. There will continue to be some mistakes for a few more weeks until we get it all the way ironed out."
Indeed, the Cougars' secondary is receiving on-the-job training.
Cornerbacks Scott Johnson and Brandon Howard, both juniors, had never started prior to this season. Senior safety David Tafuna has now recorded five career starts, dating back to 2006, after missing the entire 2007 season due to a foot injury, while senior Kellen Fowler has six career starts after taking over for an injured Quinn Gooch late last year.
"Our secondary is being coached very well. I think they'll play good enough, as they have in the first two games, to give us a chance to win the game (against UCLA)," Mendenhall said.
"They're not dominant yet, but they're improving. Despite what you saw, I think they improved over the game before. I still think it's going to take some time, but I really like the way they are being coached and I think the guys back there are the right guys."
In both games this season, BYU has allowed two long pass plays for touchdowns, including one on a trick play against Northern Iowa. Had Washington quarterback Jake Locker been more accurate last week, there probably would have been more.
"The secondary has had some good moments," said Fowler. "We've had a couple of eye-opening moments, where we've realized everything has to be assignment-sound in order to keep the ball in front of us.
"But as far as making plays when we've had to, we've had some bright spots there as well. ... As a defensive unit as a whole, we're tightening the screws, we're coming together, we're getting things cleaned up. Week-in and week-out, we're learning. Some of those first-couple-of-game mistakes need to be cleaned up in order for us to accomplish our goals. I think that's going to happen as we continue to work together."
The defensive secondary will be tested to a greater degree when the Bruins roll into Provo. The UCLA offense is engineered by offensive coordinator Norm Chow and features junior quarterback Kevin Craft.
"Anytime you're playing an NFL-style passing game like they have, they're going to try to challenge the secondary," said Fowler. "It's part of their game plan every single week. I don't necessarily think there's undue pressure on us. We know if we come out and perform like we're supposed to and are assignment-sound that's the first and more important deal if we're assignment-sound, we'll be just fine back there."
Mendenhall said that his defensive secondary is not being beaten athletically. It is, he explained, a matter of concentration and play recognition.
"When you consider going from scrimmages where they might play 30 plays to now putting 67 plays together, the lapses in concentration at those spots show up to everybody," Mendenhall said. "If it's only three or four, it's still three or four and it can change a game. It's concentration more than the ability."
BYU AND THE BCS: While plenty of people around the country are discussing BYU's chances at busting the Bowl Championship Series, Mendenhall said he's trying to keep such talk and thoughts away from his team.
"The BCS, I think, is on everyone's mind hopefully, outside of our team room," he said. "Our focus is on our next game as our most important game, which will be Wyoming after this game (against UCLA).
"That stance, that policy, that consistency, will not change as long as I am the head coach. Possibly the intrigue nationwide (will continue) as we're continuing to grow our program with our winning streak. But, really, the only way I think we're able to maintain our focus is to keep the exact same approach."
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: That Jan Jorgensen was able to block an extra-point attempt against Washington last weekend to seal the 28-27 win wasn't much of a surprise to the Cougars. Not only did they also block a last-second field goal attempt by UCLA in last year's Las Vegas Bowl, but blocking kicks is also an emphasis for the special teams every day.
"Blocking the kick for us isn't really something new. It's something we practice every day for five minutes out there at practice," said linebacker David Nixon. "And we go hard. It's something coach Mendenhall really stresses. We spend that time doing extra points and field goals. Defensively, we go after them and offensively, they try to block us."At the end of the game, when coach Mendenhall sent us all (to block the kick), we knew that was time to win the game and, fortunately, we got up there and blocked it."
BYU on the air
UCLA (1-0) at No. 18 BYU (2-0)
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM