By Jeremy Twitchell
I first met Bronco Mendenhall at BYU”s Blue & White scrimmage game in March. After a brief interview, I walked away thinking, “This guy”s insane!” And I was thrilled about it.
Don”t get me wrong, I”m sure Mendenhall is a great family man and has complete control of mental faculties. But when he talks football, he gets that look in his eye and busts out the big words in a convincing tough guy voice, like Schwarzenegger reading Shakespeare.
I was glad I took my tape recorder on that day. When asked for his opinion of the defense”s performance, Mendenhall responded with an in-depth defensive analysis that would have made the folks at Encyclopedia Britannica proud.
When I reviewed the tape later on in the newsroom, mine eyes were opened and the future of the BYU defense unfolded before me in a glorious panorama. Somewhere between Mendenhall”s comments about the roots of effort and coaches chasing players to the ball, I realized the defense was in good hands.
That hasn”t always been the case. For most of BYU”s history, the defense was the near-fatal Achilles” heel in BYU”s shootout victories.
Most fans remember the 1984 clip of safety Kyle Morrell leaping over Hawaii”s offensive line and smearing the quarterback to complete a goal line stand and preserve BYU”s perfect season. It was one of the most beautiful defensive plays in college football history, but that”s not the only reason we”ve seen it so many times. There just wasn”t anything else to show. Big time defensive plays at BYU have been few and far between.
However, BYU”s defensive woes were never the result of a lack of talent. In recent years, the Cougars have had All-America-caliber defensive players like Shay Muirbrook and Rob Morris. Those guys had amazing talent and potential, but the problem was that the coaches of the time could never figure out how to properly use them. Muirbrook and Morris could remove a lineman”s head and present it to his quarterback, but were forced to adapt to a passive defense that played with a cushion and made arm tackles downfield.
In the current scheme, players are taught to be aggressive and authoritative in their style of play. The players aren”t necessarily more talented than their predecessors, but they have coaches who know how to push them and get the most out of them. Now, players swarm to the ball and jump into the pile until the whistle blows. Even then, they make their presence known with a little extra bump or yell.
The current scheme de-emphasizes BYU”s slight size disadvantage and cashes in on its incredible speed. The shifty 3-3-5 set the team works out of allows players to quickly reach any area of the field and make plays. From the beginning, coaches warned that while the team would make a lot of big plays on defense, it would also give some up. Fortunately, and to the credit of players and coaches alike, that balance is heavily in BYU”s favor, so far.
But the coaches are quick to deflect the credit and praise. Just ask Mendenhall about his scheme”s success at BYU, and he”ll quickly credit the players” hard work and even give a nod to the previous defensive coaching staff. Most fans I”ve talked to would disagree with that, but the fact that he does it shows respect and humility, traits that are rarely found in successful college coaches.
Of course, this has all created a situation unheard of at BYU. A Cougar team that struggles on offense, but counts on its defense to keep it in the close games? Good thing we”re here to see it with our own eyes.
So as painful as it may be to watch turnovers and three-and-out series ad nauseam, at least we get to see some poor opposing quarterback get knocked silly in the meantime.