PROVO — When asked to summarize the 2014 football season, BYU defensive coordinator Nick Howell described it as “a battle, a fight.”
Yes, in Howell’s first season as the Cougars’ defensive play-caller — taking over that role for coach Bronco Mendenhall — there were plenty of struggles.
BYU allowed 31 or more points in six games. The Cougar defense was decimated by injuries, and, as a result, a host of young and inexperienced players were thrown into the fire.
“Nothing’s easy,” said Howell, who was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2013. “It was a fight the whole year to get young guys to do their jobs and get guys to learn the scheme and get guys to play hard all the time and overcome losses and losses of teammates."
Dealing with negative feedback was an issue as well, Howell said.
"The kids are surrounded by the world around them and the world around them right now is that they hear everything from everywhere. All you have to do is look down at your phone. The battle to try to keep them sheltered in this building from any negativity, keep guys positive, keep guys going and believing. That part is a fight.”
BYU’s defense will be tested one more time on Dec. 22 when it faces Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl.
Howell absorbed a lot of criticism from fans and media this season, too.
Mendenhall said Howell — who is in his fifth season in Provo and the former head coach at Ben Lomond High — has gone through a major learning experience as he adjusted to his new role.
“That position becomes one of stepping from a support role to a featured role and then all that comes with that — the scrutiny, the pressures, the criticisms, the successes and the ownership,” Mendenhall said. “I think he handled it really well as a starting point as he continues to grow and mature. I think he found the delicate balance between being the source of scheme, strategy and innovation and preparation, and also capturing the players’ hearts and building relationships. The best of the best are able to do both of those in their own way. Under my influence, there was a clear intent to maybe default to how I did it because that’s how he learned. Then as time passed, it was more of who he is and he became more comfortable and authentic that way. I think the players saw that.”
What did defensive back Skye PoVey, who is Howell’s brother-in-law, see in Howell as he evolved into a play-caller?
“He’s grown a bunch. Coach Howell is a really good coach. He knows football and he loves it,” PoVey said. “He’s very, very passionate, which is a good thing. But at times, you can be overly aggressive. Just seeing that calmness in him the last couple of games when things went wrong, we’d come to the sidelines and he’d say, ‘Guys, we’re OK, shake it off.’ And we’d go back on the field with that confidence that we could get a stop.”
“He’s been really consistent,” said linebacker Austin Heder. “He brings passion every single day. It’s fun to play for a guy that so passionate about BYU, what it stands for, and this defense.”
The process of becoming a better coach continues every year, Howell said.
“I’m a better coach today than I was in 2012 when we were really good. I’m a better coach right now because you learn as you go,” Howell said. “That’s life. I can coach technique better, I can coach scheme better. Next year I’ll be a better coach. If you get lazy, you get fired. I’m going to be a better coach year by year. We all will.”
Midway through the season, before the game at Boise State, Mendenhall took over defensive play-calling duties. The Cougars gave up 55 points that night. That was the only game Mendenhall called this season.
What was Howell’s reaction to Mendenhall’s decision to return to play-calling?
“What do you do? You keep going. Am I going to tell him no? No, I’m going to flippin’ coach my guys to play in the game,” Howell said. “I work for coach Mendenhall. I’ll do whatever he tells me to do. He’s my boss. You’re going to do what your boss tells to do. You’re going to do it with a smile on your face or you won’t do it anymore.”
Howell and the defense earned a measure of redemption when BYU defeated Cal 42-35 in the regular-season finale. The Cougars faced an explosive Golden Bear offense and made an impressive stand in the red zone at the end to preserve the victory.
“After the Cal game, I’ve never seen that much emotion and passion in our defense,” Heder said. “Afterwards, guys were very excited.”
Howell, and BYU’s defense, are hoping to ride that momentum into the Miami Beach Bowl.