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The BYU Football team on Friday held its fifth and final Provo practice in preparation for the Dec. 30 Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, with QB Riley Nelson pronouncing his teammates "zoned in" a week ahead of the game against Tulsa's Golden Hurricane.
The practice week having concluded, BYU players and coaches were released for the Christmas break, with the team scheduled to re-convene on Monday in Fort Worth, Texas. The team will practice Monday through Wednesday at a high school in Burleson (south of Fort Worth), with a game venue walk-though set for Thursday at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas.
Nelson said he thought that the team "ended practice on a good very note; I felt like today was very sharp. I'm really happy with where the offense is at...I feel very confident in our guys."
"Christmas is two days away," noted Nelson, "but if you were to watch our practice and our concentration, you would have never guessed it. I was really proud of our guys the way we practiced today."
Despite the fact he returned from lung and rib injuries to star in BYU's regular season-ending win at Hawaii, Nelson said he is still "not fully healed."
"My legs are back under me from the Hawaii game," said Nelson. "I got a little bit fatigued (in that game), but my lungs and heart are back in mid-season condition. As far as the soreness goes, still there. Along with the ribs, I got landed on pretty good, so there are some shoulder sprains, but I will say: once I get warmed up, I don't really notice it in practice, and I'm able to do everything I can do."
Linebacker Jameson Frazier was forced to leave the Hawaii game with a re-sprain of his right ankle, but said Friday that he plans to to start his last game as a Cougar. "I'll play," he told me after practice.
"It's doing a lot better," Frazier said. "Just nursing it back, hoping I can get it to where it will be healthy enough and durable enough to last through this last game."
"It's been tough--a freak accident, just gotta roll with it."
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall called his team's health status "really good" seven days before the Cougars' seventh consecutive bowl appearance.
"We managed practice to where we didn't put (the players) at risk, which is really a balance. You hate to lose someone getting ready to play the bowl game. Health-wise, academics-wise, I think things look good."
On Frazier, who has missed some practice reps while recovering, Mendenhall said "when you've played as much as he has, it should come back quickly." The coach noted that Frazier will get practice time in Texas to become more familiar with the Tulsa scheme.
Both BYU and Tulsa are playing for the marquee win that eluded them during the regular season. The Cougars' lone win over a team with a winning record came at home to Utah State (7-6); BYU lost games at Texas, home to Utah and versus TCU in Dallas. Tulsa lost to four teams ranked in the Top 10 at the time of the game; the Golden Hurricane beat only two teams with winning records: SMU (7-5) and Marshall (7-6).
"I think both teams have a lot to prove in making a final statement at the end of the year," said Frazier, "and this is the opportunity to do it."
Nelson concurred. "We're both really hungry...things didn't go our way in those games (we lost), and I'm sure they feel the same way. We'd consider this our best win of the season."
"It's sad to see the season end," said Nelson, "but I feel like up to this point we've done relatively well, and hopefully we cap it off with a good win."
A bowl win in Dallas would give BYU a 10-3 record, and would represent BYU's fifth double-digit win total in the last six seasons. As noted in this space earlier, on only two other occasions has BYU recorded five or more 10+ win seasons in a six-season stretch: 1979 through 1984 and 1980 through 1985. Mendenhall would hit double figures in victories for a fifth time in his first seven seasons as a head coach at the FBS level, joining only Georgia's Mark Richt and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops in claiming that accomplishment.
On the ten-win milestone Frazier said "a lot of teams would kill for that. I think it's a big deal."
Nelson's perspective on the matter is enhanced by his struggles as a Utah State rookie in 2006--a season the Aggies ended at 1-11.
"(Getting ten wins) matters to me a lot," said Nelson Friday, "and getting the feel from my teammates, it matters to them, too. In my mind, as a player, I know wins are hard to come by, having experienced what I experienced as a freshman."
"This (BYU) program has become accustomed to (ten-win seasons), but from one who has not always had that, I really value it, and really am striving to put ourselves in position to get that ten-win plateau."
Friday provided Mendenhall the first opportunity to react to Jake Heaps' pending transfer to Kansas, with Mendenhall saying "I'm happy for him...I'm trusting that he and his family went through the process diligently. Their family is really skilled at researching those choices, so I'm encouraged and happy that he found a place so quickly, and I assume that it will fit his needs."
"I still care for him and would like for him to be successful," said Mendenhall of Heaps. Confirming that Kansas was on Heaps' list of schools to which he sought a release from his BYU commitment, the coach said the list of target transfer schools "grew over time."
"This is really encouraging that it happened this fast. That usually means there's been a great fit and a good match that both sides felt good about."
The Jayhawks' new head coach is former NFL/college offensive coordinator and Notre Dame head man Charlie Weis, who is reputed for his work with quarterbacks both preparing for and playing in the pros. Mendenhall was asked to speculate about the role Weis' pro pedigree played in Heaps' decision.
"Good question," said Mendenhall. "I think Jake's an NFL player; so knowing that, and I think anyone who's seen him play would think that, so possibly besides his college opportunity, maybe that weighed into maybe inroads to continue to play after college, but I'm not sure."
You can the entire post-practice interviews with Mendenhall, Nelson and Frazier in "Cougar Cuts," above left.