A week and a day before his team's season-opening game with Washington State, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall said on Wednesday that "I like where we are, and I feel comfortable at least at this point today, that we'll be in good shape."
"I have high expectations for this team."
You can hear Mendenhall's post-practice media session, along with comments from kicker Justin Sorensen, defensive back Preston Hadley and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, in "Cougar Cuts," left.
The Sorensen interview represents some good news; after not kicking at all during the first two-and-a-half weeks of camp due to a back injury, Sorensen has kicked on each of the last two days, and says he has no back pain--only some leg soreness from kicking again.
"Yesterday was more just 'swing your leg and see what happens,'" said Sorensen. "Today was like legit kicking...just field goals--they're going to work me in slow; ten kicks total today, then we'll do some more tomorrow."
"My leg is really sore and tired, but my back doesn't hurt, so I'm totally happy about that."
Sorensen says today's kicks "probably all would have been good from 50-55 (yards)...plenty long. They all tended to go a little left...tomorrow I'll probably figure that out, see what my body is doing."
Sorensen acknowledges that his offseason workload isn't close to what it would normally have been. "In an eight-month period, you kick 5,000 balls; I've kicked 200," he said.
"Luckily I have had that extra time for mental reps...kicking is 90% mental, so it has given me more time to think about things. I don't feel as unprepared as I might have been in high school."
The Bingham HS product says it has been "extremely" frustrating to be on the sidelines in camp. "I'm ticked," Sorensen said with a laugh. "It's been really hard, but it's been good working with Riley Stephenson this last month--he's doing awesome. That has really helped me a lot, being able to work with him and feel like I'm kicking that way."
As for Sorensen's status in the opener, he said "I plan on being ready...it's going to be up to the coaches, and really this next week--how my back and leg do, with just getting back into things. If they want me, I'm there."
BYU players voted on the 2012 team captains today; Mendenhall announced that the players chosen were QB Riley Nelson (offense), LB Brandon Ogletree (defense) and RB David Foote (special teams).
"They were given pretty specific criteria," said Mendenhall of what he asked the players to consider when voting. "First, representing the institution...so there had to be a strong faith component. Excellent students, was another part of it. How they conduct themselves socially, what kind of leaders they were on the team, and what kind of players."
There are a few personnel notes to update, and one involves what is turning out to be a position switch. Yesterday, we learned that Terenn Houk has moved from wide receiver to tight end, and today we discover that Marcus Mathews is moving from tight end to wide receiver. The duration of Mathews' shift is to be determined, but he is with them now. Marcus' brother Mitch had previously emerged as a likely fourth receiver after the "big three" of Hoffman, Apo and Falslev, but his status is a little up in the air after recent aggravation of a clavicle injury.
Asked about his tight ends, Mendenhall all but anointed Kaneakua Friel as the opening-night starter at that position.
"I'm not sure if I would call it a surprise or not, but the player that I've been so happy with is Kaneakua Friel. Of the players that have had the best fall camp, and become the most complete...if I were to pick one right now, he's the one that I like best, in terms of how he has played, how he has conducted himself, the consistency."
"He has kind of filled a hole while the other two (TEs Austin Holt and Richard Wilson) are still coming back from their knee (surgeries)."
Mendenhall said losing WLB Kevan Bills for the season with a torn ACL is "really sad"; the coach said the injury occurred in a non-contact individual drill, on grass, and that Bills not only finished practice on the day of the injury, but practiced then next day as well.
"Just chalk that one up to bad luck, I think...sometimes there's just nothing you can do. It's hard to explain that one."
Mendenhall says true freshman Jherremya Leuta-Douyere is "now the backup" to Kyle Van Noy at weakside linebacker. Ziggy Ansah is also on the weakside, but while Ian Dulan (back) is out, Ansah is working mostly on the defensive line. Once Dulan returns, Mendenhall says "we have some more flexibility" at the Will position, with Alani Fua also able to move over from the strong side.
Washington State's offensive scheme has received a great deal of attention for its particular ties to BYU through head coach Mike Leach (a BYU alum) and his study and refinement of a 1980s Cougar pass attack that has since become the "Air Raid." BYU's implementation of "Air Raid" components when Robert Anae left Leach's Texas Tech program to coordinate BYU's offense in 2005 is also a part of the coaching tree storyline.
Receiving less attention is the fact that Mendenhall-coached teams have also faced Washington State's defensive coordinator Mike Breske, with notable success.
Breske was the DC at Wyoming from 2003 through 2008, meaning he faced a Mendenhall-led BYU team four times, from 2005 through 2008. In those four games, BYU scored 35 points (2005), 55 points (2006), 35 points (2007) and 44 points (2008). Breske switched from a 4-3 defensive alignment to a 3-4 starting in Wyoming's 2006 season; he runs the 3-4 now at Washington State.
So, in three outings against Breske's 3-4, BYU averaged just under 45 points per game against a Wyoming defense that was otherwise pretty good: the Cowboys were in the national top 40 in yards allowed all three seasons (9th in 2006, 22nd in 2007 and 38th in 2008).
Of course, Wyoming's personnel and Washington State's personnel are not directly comparable, but that said, the Pullman Cougars' defense was an under-performing unit in 2011, ranking 82nd in yards allowed and 95th in points allowed. BYU may reasonably aspire to some offensive productivity based on past results.
"At least there is film and some history," said Mendenhall of any advantage BYU might have in having played Breske-coached defenses before. "How much has changed based on the personnel they have, we won't know until we play. But at least there is some point of reference."
Speaking more broadly about the challenges in a season-opener, Mendenhall said "our focus is almost exclusively on us. We have a decent idea of what they (Washington State) are going to do, but in the opener, it's not so much about the opponent, it's about your own execution."
Photo: Courtesy Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News