Editors note: This is the second of a two-part series reviewing BYU's spring practices and looking ahead to the Cougars' inaugural season as an independent. Read the first one here.
PROVO — For BYU's football program, spring cleaning began long before spring.
It started last fall.
Sept. 1 will always be a landmark date in school history, the day it declared independence. Exactly one month later, Oct. 1, turned out to be another defining moment, as the Cougars fell at Utah State, 31-16.
The humiliating setback marked their first loss to the Aggies in 17 years. It also gave BYU a four-game losing streak (the longest in 17 years) and an abysmal 1-4 record (its worst start since 1973).
Unfortunately, the game was broadcast on ESPN, its new television partner. Not the kind of impression the Cougars were looking to make on national TV.
In the aftermath of the USU debacle, coach Bronco Mendenhall realized some fundamental changes had to be made if the program was going to reach its potential. That started with firing defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and taking over that role himself. Mendenhall immediately instilled an enthusiasm and work ethic that had been missing. At the time, he explained that he wanted to "recapture the heart and soul" of his team — and it worked.
During a season marked by adversity, the Cougars benefited from a new attitude, and a softer schedule, and won six of their final eight games. Once the season ended, Mendenhall informed his staff he was going to make changes. In January, offensive coordinator Robert Anae took a job at Arizona and receivers coach Patrick Higgins left for Purdue.
While Mendenhall said he doesn't think much about that loss in Logan these days, he admits, "It was kind of the catalyst for a lot of the change. There's been so much work looking forward and so much work to improve the team; the end of last season did that and the off-season and spring has been a continuation of the season. That part seems all together. The first four games prior to Utah State, that might as well have been the first season. It seems that long ago."
The early-season struggle may have been exactly the springboard the young Cougars needed, not only for last season, but for the future.
"Quite honestly, I try to forget about those first five games," said quarterback Jake Heaps. "It's always a reminder for us as a football team. All these guys were a part of this team. We really remember how hard that was. It was tough. The difference was the way we were practicing, the way we were working and the way we approached our everyday effort from the first half of the season to the second half of the season. That was a huge growing experience and learning experience for us. We've learned what it takes to be great, what it takes to be a BYU football player and represent the tradition and what it stands for. That's the best part."
Mendenhall saw the end-of-season momentum carry over into the spring.
"The only thing that happened last year is we ran out of time. We ran out of games," he said. "We continued to improve and grow and develop and were really gaining a lot of momentum the longer the season went. Our players had a sense of frustration that the season was over. They see (spring ball and the offseason) as a continuation of last year."
To ensure that his team has a jumpstart on next season, Mendenhall announced team captains and position leadership council just days after spring practice ended, rather than wait until fall camp.
"This particular team is anxious to go faster and harder in this time period than our other teams," Mendenhall explained. "This team is anxious to lead and keep going, so I thought it would be best to put that leadership in place a little earlier."
Changes at the top
Of BYU's 10 full-time coaches, only three are doing the same job as a year ago. Since last spring, the Cougars have a new defensive coordinator (Mendenhall), a new offensive coordinator (Brandon Doman), a new special teams coordinator (Nick Howell) and a new recruiting coordinator (Joe DuPaix).
"Every coordinator position or key leadership position on the staff has been changed," Mendenhall said. "With that comes so much excitement and energy and enthusiasm. A real passion for being at BYU specifically, working with our players and maybe overarching all of that, with the love for the mindset and the direction the program has taken, and how it's currently being run."
Added the coach: “The idea is, I believe the program is capable of still more than has been accomplished the past six years, and I would like to see visible signs of that — not every other year or every third year,” Mendenhall explained. “It just felt like we kind of plateaued with the existing leadership.”
DuPaix was hired away from Navy to be the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator, and former Canadian Football League star Ben Cahoon came aboard as receivers coach.
After going through spring drills with new coaches, Mendenhall said the changes have resulted in "a renewed enthusiasm and excitement. I think it's reflecting on the players. Nothing is status quo. What we've known that's got us to this point certainly has been acknowledged, but we're looking to press forward and do a better job than we've done in the past."
Doman said DuPaix and Cahoon have made an immediate impact.
"Joe DuPaix inherently is a pretty energetic and enthusiastic guy. Just having him around, coaching the running backs — that's such a physical part of this team and such an important part of this team for play-action, which we want to do. Coach Cahoon has brought a mastery of the craft of wide receiver. Those guys have reinvigorated through new drills and ideas. They're certainly full of energy and doing a great job. They're motivated, and they all like to learn and they take great feedback. They're working really hard. With the right work ethic and the right people, that's a good combination."
2011 BYU coaching staff
Bronco Mendenhall, Head coach/defensive coordinator
Lance Reynolds, Assistant head coach/tight ends
Brandon Doman, Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
*Ben Cahoon, Receivers coach
*Joe DuPaix, Running backs/recruiting coordinator
Nick Howell, Secondary coach/special teams
Steve Kaufusi, Defensive line coach
Kelly Poppinga, Outside linebackers coach
Paul Tidwell, Inside linebackers coach
Mark Weber, Offensive line coach
*Entering first season on staff