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With his team coming off an impressive road win at Georgia Tech followed by a bye week, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall says his players are "anxious to play already… anxious to get back to work and I think anxious to really finish strong."
Speaking after a Monday evening practice in the IPF, Mendenhall said his 5-4 squad has "a lot to improve as a football program and as a team," downplaying the fact that BYU will finish the regular season with a trio of WAC teams, including two of the FBS' worst programs, in Idaho (this Saturday) and New Mexico State (Nov. 24).
"Our focus again is just on how much better we can get," said Mendenhall. "I haven't looked ahead much; had a full day on Idaho today, and then we'll worry about our next opponent after that. Man, we have a lot to improve on, so that's really where my focus has been with our team."
The Vandals have in recent weeks fired their head coach and dismissed their starting quarterback, among others, and rank among the poorest FBS teams in practically every meaningful statistical category. BYU is almost a 40-point favorite on Saturday night.
"Idaho is a team that has struggled with consistency, on both offense and defense," said Mendenhall, displaying a mix of truth and kindness. "In stretches they show capability."
In one of the more lopsided presumptive mismatches you will ever see, Idaho's 120th-ranked scoring offense meets BYU's 7th-ranked scoring defense, while a Vandal attack ranked 112th in yards gained tries to move the ball against a Cougar "D" standing fourth nationally in yards allowed.
Mendenhall, who also serves as BYU's defensive coordinator, says what his unit achieved ten days ago in Atlanta was something special, as the Cougars limited one of the nation's very best option run games to 117 rushing yards, 157 total yards and no offensive touchdowns.
"It was one of the best defensive performances against the option that I've ever seen or been a part of," said Mendenhall on Monday, "so I was really proud of them. It's a fun group to be with, every week…they work really hard, and I've been lucky to coach them so far, this year."
Asked if finishing first in the nation in total defense is a realistic goal, Mendenhall said "I think anything is realistic for them. They've proven to be capable in every category, if you look statistically...I wouldn't put anything by them."
As noted in this space yesterday, freshman running back Jamaal Williams has also proven capable since taking over for an injured Michael Alisa earlier this season. The 17-year old rookie has recorded a pair of hundred-yard ground outings, including his 107-yard effort at Georgia Tech.
While it was Alisa who was expected to emerge as BYU's marquee back this season, the opportunity afforded Williams has opened the door on what should be a standout career. I asked Mendenhall if he can see Williams occupying that ‘marquee back' role moving forward, and the coach said "I would say from the early signs, yeah."
"He's still really, young, just 17 years old, and a lot of work still to do," said Mendenhall, "but the way he runs the football, the confidence he runs it with, the physical nature he runs it with, is really a nice start for a true freshman. So I would say at this point, yeah."
Mendenhall was asked about the recent news that defensive lineman Bronson Kaufusi is considering playing for Dave Rose's basketball team once the football season concludes in late November, and the coach was non-committal about the possibility.
After saying that he didn't really have "any early thoughts" on the matter, Mendenhall added that it's "really hard to be good at one sport, let alone two, and so I would say that just as a blanket statement."
"Very few guys are capable of playing two (sports)...so, really premature to even consider it or talk about it. Maybe after the bowl game we can consider that."
For his part, Kaufusi said he "was called" by a basketball representative to gauge interest in considering the cross-over, and said "I think it would be a challenge, but something that's possible...it's something that could happen. It would really be manageable."
"Gotta stay focused on the (football) season," Kaufusi said, "but afterwards, if there is an opportunity, then I'll take it."
Saturday night, before his team's exhibition finale, Rose told me that "(Bronson) would like to do that," speaking of Kaufusi's intention to give basketball a try after BYU's bowl game. "Bronco and I have had a conversation about it."
"Probably at this point," Rose said, "it's safe to say that Bronson wants to do that; we'll find out later if that will actually happen."
Rose's team lost two forwards after the start of the semester with the retirements of Chris Collinsworth and Stephen Rogers. At 6'7" and 260 pounds, Kaufusi—a former star power forward/center for the Timpview HS hoops team—would clearly give the basketball Cougars some frontcourt depth they lost with the earlier departures. Rose and his staffers recruited Kaufusi as a basketball player, so their belief in him as a Division I-level talent has already been established.
Kaufusi averaged 15-16 points per game in his sophomore and junior seasons at Timpview, before a knee injury scuttled his senior campaign.
Mendenhall promised "a little bit different format" for Saturday's ‘Senior Night' formalities at LaVell Edwards Stadium, due to the late kickoff time of 8:15 pm.
Instead of the traditional post-game blanket presentation to players and introduction of families, the coach said "we'll honor them more pregame, and then what I normally do after the game, we'll do it in our banquet this year, just because of how late the start is."
One of 24 seniors listed by BYU, quarterback Riley Nelson says this week is no time for sentiment, with still three games left to play after Saturday night's home finale.
"I just haven't thought about it at all…I don't have anything locked and loaded to give you, as far as memories or reminiscing," said Nelson after practice.
"We have a fourth of our season left, so you can't think of this as the end. It's just another game, and hopefully we'll go out and execute."
Senior Ziggy Ansah is a BYU senior generating NFL draft buzz, and I asked Mendenhall about who the league scouts like from this year's BYU team. Mendenhall called draft speculation "a little bit premature, but they like quite a few players."
The coach declined to name names on Monday night saying "I think I'd like to hold off on that, maybe until bowl preparations or something like that, rather than have them be distracted at this point; we still have a lot of work to do."
You can hear Monday's post-practice interviews with Mendenhall, Kaufusi and Nelson in "Cougar Cuts," above left.
There are some seats available for Wednesday night's LaVell Edwards Stadium radio broadcast of "BYU Football with Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall." If you would like to attend the live show, fill out a seat request at this link.