PROVO — Can one clone Bronco Mendenhall’s football mind?
The BYU football coach is trying to do just that with Nick Howell, a young assistant coach who has been tutoring the Cougar secondary the past three seasons.
On the eve of the start of Cougar spring football practice Monday, Howell’s backpack just got a little heavier.
Mendenhall threw a title his way. Howell is now BYU’s defensive coordinator, inheriting a unit that ranked No. 3 in the nation in total defense in 2012.
Howell’s job? To continue to learn to be Bronco Mendenhall.
“I’m just really excited. It’s an honor,” said Howell, who will retain his role as the secondary coach. “It’s kind of an honor from coach Mendenhall that he trusts me. We’ve worked together for a few years now, and there’s feeling of trust and enthusiasm on my part right now.”
Mendenhall announced Howell’s enhanced status on Friday, but it’s been talked about for a while, according to Howell. As BYU’s head coach, Mendenhall has had to duck out of meetings and coordinator assignments. He needed a clone.
“He’ll still call the plays. Not a whole lot will change, really,” said Howell.
Some have thought Mendenhall’s move with Howell and making offensive coordinator Robert Anae assistant head coach as well as offensive coordinator in the same announcement Friday signaled Mendenhall might be setting himself to depart after 2013.
But Mendenhall told the Deseret News he is working on a contract extension when his current BYU deal expires after 2013.
“Coach Mendenhall is one of the brightest minds of defensive football there is out there, but there are times his role as head coach has to come first and duties as a coordinator take you away. This past year he’s given me things to help him,” Howell said.
I see the move as Mendenhall shoring up his own leadership style, rewarding Howell, while doing what he loves doing the most, keeping a hands-on role with players and calling defensive plays. His move with Anae, giving him the assistant head coach title, is his way of underscoring how he values his return to BYU and honors his loyalty.
Howell as a coordinator?
If 2012 is any indication of capital BYU’s defense deposited in the bank, Mendenhall wouldn’t do this if he didn’t think it would enhance his operation.
And what about that operation? Mendenhall wants one standard for both the offense and defense. We're talking effort and intensity.
To any observer of practices since Mendenhall took over, that hasn’t been the case. In Anae’s return after a two-year absence, he’s vowed to fix that on his side of the ball.
I asked Howell what he thought of working with an entirely new offensive staff than a year ago.
“There’s enthusiasm. I’m super excited. I think coach Anae has a clear direction he wants to go as far as an identity and what he wants to accomplish. He’s come in the first day and communicated his ideas very well as far as what he wants and how he’s is going to do it. He’s given players and the staff clear instructions on how to get there. From what I’ve seen, they are going after it as hard as they can to achieve those things.”
Howell likes Anae’s offensive schemes. It will be a blend of BYU's traditional formations and added wrinkles from what Anae learned at Arizona under Rich Rodriquez.
“I think it is going to be a fun style of football. In this offensive staff, there is a nice variety. There is some youth, there is some experience at different positions, and these are really good changes.
“So far, our players have responded to it well, and I’d say our whole staff is more aligned with coach Mendenhall’s philosophy, more than I’ve ever seen it as far as making effort a premium. That is the No. 1 thing that he cares about, and all those guys have totally bought in to his philosophy and they are excited. That is the main thing, to see this. It’s all for the kids. You don’t make changes just to make changes. You do it to get better, and this is what coaching is all about, making players better,” said Howell.
It sounds like Mendenhall is well on his way to being cloned.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.