Commentary

Cougars focused on taking the next step

Updated: April 7, 2008, 3:55 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

When Bronco Mendenhall became BYU's defensive coordinator in 2003, he thought his walk to the practice field would pass through a portal into the program's past.

In Mendenhall's mind, a chain of former Cougars greats would be waiting to greet the team, mentor the players and serve as living proof of what BYU had done and what it could, perhaps one day, do again.

"I was expecting to see all these great faces, helping this next group of players remember what it's like to play at BYU, what the standards are," Mendenhall said. "There has been a national championship at this school.

[+] EnlargeBronco Mendenhall
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesBronco Mendenhall has led the Cougars to a 22-4 record over the last two seasons.

"And much to my dismay, they weren't here, nor did it look like they wanted to be."

Mendenhall has spent the past four years trying to bring them back.

Following his promotion to head coach in December 2004, he and his staff sent out 1,600 letters to program alumni. Almost one-third were returned because of wrong addresses.

"Many were sent to the addresses that the players lived in on campus 20 years ago," Mendenhall said. "I started to get a much clearer picture of, 'No wonder they're not coming back. They haven't been embraced.'"

Mendenhall has since corrected the addresses. He has also fixed the product on the field.

After four straight non-winning seasons, BYU has gone 11-2 in each of the past two campaigns, not losing a game at home or in Mountain West Conference play. Only LSU, Ohio State and Boise State have a better two-year win total (23) than the Cougars (22), who won bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1983-84.

After finishing last season with its highest national ranking in 11 years, BYU will enter the fall riding the nation's longest win streak (10). The offense returns 10 starters, and several key holdovers remain from a defense that ranked ninth nationally in points allowed (18.5 ppg).

"We have a chance to do something special," quarterback Max Hall said. "A lot of people believe in us right now."

About 900 believers showed up Friday at LaVell Edwards Stadium, as former players and their families watched the team scrimmage on alumni day. Only 140-150 people had attended three years ago for the inaugural event.

Among those in the crowd were several members from BYU's 1984 national championship team, which went 13-0 and beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl, setting a benchmark a team from a non-BCS conference might never reach again.

"What they did, it's unprecedented at a school like this," Cougars junior defensive end Jan Jorgensen said. "When they speak, I listen. No other [non-BCS] team has an advantage like that. It's nice for us to sit back and say it's not impossible because it's happened here before."

Jim Herrmann, a defensive lineman for BYU in '84, sees a similar expectation level between his team and the current one.

"They get it," said Herrmann, who lives near Salt Lake City and has made several trips to Provo this spring, including Friday. "It's an opportunity, and it's not only how well they play, but really all the contingencies that need to be in line, especially in a non-BCS conference, to make a national statement.

"They feel that a lot of those elements are in place."

[+] EnlargeMax Hall
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesMax Hall threw 26 TD passes in 2007.

BYU returns the nation's eighth-leading passer in Hall, reigning Mountain West freshman of the year Harvey Unga and leading receivers Dennis Pitta and Austin Collie. Unga, a 1,200-yard rusher, will be joined in the backfield by Fui Vakapuna, who is healthy after being limited last season by a surgically repaired ankle and a broken hand.

The defense loses several stars but retains a pass-rushing menace in Jorgensen, who ranked fifth nationally in sacks last season (13.5).

"We're not satisfied with 11-2," Jorgensen said. "Anybody who wants to be great will never be satisfied with those two seasons."

If the expectations weren't clear already, a fashion statement this spring has reinforced them.

Players are sporting T-shirts that read "Quest for Perfection." The phrase comes from BYU's mission statement -- to assist individuals in their quest for perfection and eternal life -- but given the team's outlook, it has been left open to interpretation.

"I almost wasn't going to have those T-shirts made," Mendenhall said, "knowing that the world would view it differently."

Mendenhall's players know what he had in mind.

In meetings they often discuss the individual's aspiration for perfection and reference Matthew 5:48 -- Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. But individual excellence can translate to collective greatness, and Mendenhall has never hidden his goal of a spotless season.

Jorgensen remembers meeting with the coach after he had returned from his two-year mission.

"He wasn't going to settle for just conference championships," Jorgensen said. "He wanted to do what the 1984 team did, eventually. It's come pretty fast."

The buzz around the team this spring wasn't there in 1984 as BYU went through drills.

The Cougars had won eight consecutive WAC titles and were coming off an 11-1 season capped by a Holiday Bowl win against Missouri, but they were losing Heisman Trophy runner-up Steve Young and several other stars.

"The '83 team was so loaded," said Robbie Bosco, who succeeded Young at quarterback. "Nobody really knew anything about us. It was kind of like, 'Yeah, whatever.'"

BYU gained respect the way college football's underclass has to, by beating the big programs on the road. Opening the season against No. 3 Pitt, the Cougars pulled off a 20-14 upset.

The next week, Bosco and coach LaVell Edwards appeared on "Good Morning America."

"With the Pittsburgh game, it was Bill Fralic and Ironhead Heyward and Chris Doleman," Herrmann said. "We knew that was our chance."

[+] EnlargeJan Jorgensen
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesJan Jorgensen registered 13½ sacks in '07.

The Cougars haven't capitalized on similar chances the past two seasons.

In 2006, they lost their opener at Arizona on a last-minute field goal, then lost again in a double-overtime decision two weeks later at Boston College. Last fall, back-to-back road losses against UCLA and Tulsa left BYU with another 1-2 start.

"I just don't think we came into fall camp prepared the way we needed to be," Hall said.

A week remains of spring practice, but players are already emphasizing attendance at summer workouts to build momentum for the season. Mendenhall, who takes the blame for BYU's poor early season preparation, thinks he has "framed the problem."

He'll find out in Week 2, when BYU visits Washington before hosting UCLA on Sept. 13.

"We have to have that early signature type of win if you're talking about the BCS as the ultimate goal," Mendenhall said. "Knowing that a national championship has already been won here, conference championships are expected, but also you're expected to compete on a national level."

To take the next step, BYU must fine-tune the offense and replenish a defense that loses leading tackler Kelly Poppinga, standout strongside linebacker Bryan Kehl and all four starters in the secondary. Senior David Nixon moves from starting weakside linebacker into Kehl's spot, and junior Matt Bauman has emerged at middle linebacker.

Mendenhall has experimented with several combinations in the secondary this spring.

"We have a decent idea of who our top eight are," he said, "but it still needs work."

Friday's scrimmage in front of the alumni helped motivate players like Jorgensen, who "wanted to show them I'm up to snuff." After the practice, he ragged on former Cougars star and current Green Bay Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga, telling Poppinga that his Mountain West career sacks record was in jeopardy.

"To see the former players and guys that have played in the NFL out watching practice, it means a lot to [the current players]," said Bosco, the director of BYU's Varsity Club. "It gives them something to shoot for."

Maybe even the mountaintop.

"I don't think you can ever set goals too high," Hall said. "Does that mean we're going to be perfect this year? I don't know. But we're going to try to be."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.