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Bronco Mendenhall is studying every aspect of BYU's program, trying to draw from the Cougars' past to improve their future.
As for the present, the Cougars are not that far from success. They may have suffered three consecutive losing seasons, leading to the resignation of coach Gary Crowton and the promotion of Mendenhall, but they did post a winning record (4-3) in MWC play in 2004.
With a more reasonable schedule this year, Mendenhall believes that victories in close games will make enough difference to bring back signs of the glory years to BYU, beyond the white helmets and '70s-style uniforms he's reintroducing.
"To me, the most significant issue is making the play at the critical time," Mendenhall said.
That ability stems from confidence that Mendenhall hopes the Cougars can regain, allowing them to return to a bowl game after a three-year absence.
Statistically, junior John Beck is the Mountain West's top returning quarterback. First, however, he had to re-establish himself as BYU's starting quarterback.
Mendenhall insisted that quarterback, like every other position, be open to competition in spring drills. So Beck battled Matt Berry and Jason Beck (no relation) in the Cougars' new offense. He proved himself to be the team's top passer and was named the starter after spring drills. Beck completed 56 percent of his passes for 2,563 yards and 15 touchdowns with eight interceptions as a sophomore.
Running back Curtis Brown was used inconsistently last season but still gained 789 yards. He should thrive in BYU's new version of a spread offense, as opponents gear themselves to deal with the Cougars' passing attack.
Receiver Todd Watkins made an impact in two ways last season, averaging 20.0 yards per catch and limping through a 21-14 loss to New Mexico. That defeat cost the Cougars a bowl bid and illustrated Watkins' importance.
BYU's offensive line deserved low marks last season; the Cougars ranked last in the MWC in rushing, with 103.2 yards a game, and gave up 39 quarterback sacks. This season, pass protection has been simplified and quarterbacks are expected to get rid of the ball sooner, which should help the linemen.
The anchor of the unit is center Lance Reynolds, the son of BYU's running backs coach. A former linebacker, Reynolds is big, smart and tough.
BYU slipped to fourth in the MWC in total defense (377.3 yards per game) in Mendenhall's second season as the Cougars' defensive coordinator. A big chunk (229.3) of those yards came through the air, and Mendenhall points to attrition due to the school's Honor Code as a major factor. He still lists the secondary as the "biggest question mark" in his 3-3-5 scheme.
BYU has waited for Nebraska transfer Manaia Brown to become a dominant defensive end. He showed signs of that ability as a junior, recording 4.5 sacks.
Cameron Jensen was not well known going into last season. Now, Mendenhall calls the middle linebacker "the heart and soul of the defense." Jensen ranked fourth in the MWC with 103 tackles, including 12 tackles for a loss.
Matt Payne handled all of BYU's kicking last season. Without him, Jared McLaughlin is expected to punt, while Trent Williams is the likely kicker. Transfer Derek McLaughlin went on an LDS Church mission after averaging 41.2 yards as a freshman at Washington. He also could be a factor.
Returner Bryce Mahuika averaged 22.5 yards per kick return, while BYU's kickoff coverage struggled. The Cougars were last in the MWC last year, allowing 24.9 yards per kick return.
The Cougars' hopes for a winning season improved when they replaced USC on the schedule with Eastern Illinois. That game could be the difference between 5-6 and 6-5.
They may do even better than that if Beck can thrive in a system that's supposed to be easier for the quarterback. The biggest issue for Mendenhall will be success at home, where the Cougars lost eight games under Crowton over the past two seasons.