Cougars hope to rebound quickly from disappointing 2002

Updated: August 22, 2003, 2:35 PM ET

PROVO, Utah -- After a 30-year run of prosperity ended with last season's 5-7 record, Brigham Young was picked to finish in the middle of the Mountain West Conference standings.

Just two years removed from winning the league title, the Cougars want to show they haven't slipped that far.

"It's very bothersome. It bugs us. We're out to prove to people this year -- we're BYU," quarterback Matt Berry said.

Gary Crowton is entering his third season since replacing LaVell Edwards as head coach. From 1971-1999, the Cougars never finished with a losing record under Edwards, for whom BYU's stadium has been renamed.

BYU finished 12-2 in Crowton's first season and appeared to be carrying on the successful tradition established by Edwards. But a combination of inexperience and injuries helped lead to last year's disappointment.

But the Cougars have five offensive starters returning, including Berry. As a freshman last year, Berry took over the offense midway through the season and showed promise despite going 2-4 as the starter.

"I know the offense so much better," Berry said. "It was a long offseason, so I had a lot of time to get in the weight room and the video room and see a lot of film and improve myself physically."

The Cougars lost leading receiver Reno Mahe and three starters on the offensive line, but Crowton expects the offense to respond well under new co-coordinators Robbie Bosco and Todd Bradford.

Part of that optimism may be because of the BYU defense, which has starters back at every position and will be playing for new coordinator Bronco Mendenhall.

Mendenhall, who came to the Cougars from MWC rival New Mexico, has spiced up the defense that had been run by Ken Schmidt, who retired after 21 seasons at BYU.

"It will be a lot more unpredictable," defensive end Brady Poppinga said. "A lot more blitzing. A lot more aggressive. For all of us, it's a lot more fun. Anything more aggressive to a football player is better. That's sort of our nature."

Mendenhall was on Crowton's staff at Louisiana State, and Crowton sought his former assistant specifically for his intensity. BYU allowed an average of 384.7 yards and 27.8 points per game last season.

"It's going to be hard to tell where we're at until the first game because we've only practiced against each other," Crowton said. "They're energetic and enthusiastic. They run to the ball good and they cause a lot of havoc right now in practice. I believe that our defense is going to surprise a lot of people."

The one downside for the Cougars this season could be the non-conference schedule, which includes three teams that went to bowls a year ago. The Cougars have road trips to Pac-10 champion Southern California and Notre Dame and home games against Georgia Tech and Stanford.

BYU opens the season Aug. 28 against the Yellow Jackets in Provo.

Berry is scheduled to get the start, although Crowton said Berry has been pushed by freshman John Beck, who moved up to No. 2 at the position in preseason camp.

Crowton also expects three freshmen to have prominent roles on the offensive line, where the Cougars had to rotate more than they wanted to a year ago.

Eddie Keele (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) could start at left tackle and Jake Karessa (6-4, 330) is competing for left guard. True freshman Mohetau Ofa (6-3, 320) will start the season as a backup and probably will not redshirt this season.

"We have a little more depth there. We're a lot more solid in that position," Crowton said. "We won't have to move guys all over like we did last year."

Marcus Whalen, the Cougars' leading rusher last season with 918 yards on 181 carries for six touchdowns, returns for his junior season.

Toby Christensen and Rod Wilkerson are the front-runners to start at receiver, along with freshman Daniel Coates at tight end.

On defense, the Cougars have their top-10 tacklers back from last season, including linebacker Paul Walkenhorst, who led the Cougars with 107 stops. BYU is hoping the experience and Mendenhall's enthusiasm will make up for last season's disappointing statistics.

"You have to remember how it feels to lose and how it feels to be disappointed so you can work and not have it happen again," Poppinga said. "We're not lingering on it or anything at all. We're learning from it."

Crowton's success during his first season set expectations high for the new era in BYU football, but the Cougars unraveled midway through the season and couldn't recover. Back-to-back losses to New Mexico and in-state rival Utah gave BYU its first losing season since 1971, the year before Edwards took over.

Crowton feels his team, which is young, should be back among the conference contenders before long and possibly even this year.

"This year is different," Crowton said. "Guys are healthy. They know what's expected. Their work ethic's been great."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index