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Saying it was "great to be back on the football field again," BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall guided his 2014 team through its first spring practice on a pleasant Monday afternoon in Provo.
"I thought our team worked hard today," said Mendenhall after practice. "Certainly (we're) starting from a lot different place than a year ago offensively, in terms of how much they know about the new system."
After breaking in offensive coordinator Robert Anae's up-tempo attack last season, the Cougars are more confident about hitting the ground running--and throwing--when the season kicks off Aug. 29 at Connecticut.
"The starting point is much farther (ahead) than it was a year ago," Anae said.
Mendenhall said that while the wide-receiver group was a little bit behind with few returning players and injuries to returners at that position, the rest of the offense appeared ready to roll on opening day.
"(Quarterback) Taysom (Hill), the running backs, tight ends, offensive line, (they've) picked up much as where they left off."
"I'm excited for the 2014 season, I'm excited for spring ball," said Hill. "There's a lot of optimism throughout the locker room with the team. I'm excited and looking forward to it; I think we have a great chance to be really good and improve on what we did last year."
Hill has been working in the offseason with former BYU quarterback John Beck, who has in turn been sharing pass-mechanics concepts learned from Tom House, a former major-league pitching coach who has also instructed QBs interested in improving or modifying their throwing motion.
Mendenhall said Beck and BYU quarterback coach Jason Beck "have a taken a real interest this offseason in not only helping (Hill) in warm-up routines, in terms of protocol, but also anticipation, where the ball is delivered, when it's delivered--things that can maybe make him more proficient.
"So much of what we ask him to do, because of his body, is run-oriented, (but) the next phase of this whole thing offensively, to make it more dynamic, is to add the throw game to it, so we've added that, a ton. Hopefully that won't diminish his ability to run with it, which I don't think it will."
Mendenhall said that on the other side of the ball, there are "some players to replace, but more depth at defensive line than what we've had in some time."
"I really like the combination of Alani Fua and Bronson Kaufusi at outside linebacker; that looked good today."
The six-foot-seven Kaufusi is making the switch to linebacker after two seasons as a defensive end; he says position shift suits his mentality and physiology.
"I've dropped about 25 pounds to play (OLB); I was like 285 last year and now I'm 260, 265. Being able to play the edge is more like a 4-3 (scheme) defensive end; that's what I was in high school. I like it a lot more because you're more aggressive."
Mendenhall said between his outside backers and a starting secondary that could feature corners Jordan Johnson and Trent Trammell with safeties Craig Bills and Rob Daniel, "we look pretty athletic on the perimeters and on the back end."
"We could be really athletic (in the secondary)," said Mendenhall, "when you talk about Johnson in addition to Trent and Rob, with Craig Bills back. That could be a nice secondary in terms of athleticism and coverage ability."
In identifying his major objectives for the spring practice sessions, Mendenhall said first and foremost "what we have to improve is our ability to protect (the QB), and throw and catch the football effectively and consistently. Our pass game has to catch up our run game, which I think it will."
BYU ranked 19th nationally in yards per rush and 10th in rushing yards per game last season, but the Cougars' corresponding pass numbers ranked 91st and 73rd respectively.
The coach also zeroed in on inside-the-20-yard-line performance as an area of concern; "I'd like to see our focus on blue zone (red zone) scoring--I'd like to see us get better in that."
In 2013, BYU's red-zone scoring percentage ranked 63rd nationally, while the Cougars' red-zone TD percentage ranked 115th, of 125 teams.
Mendenhall said development of depth at inside linebacker and defensive line would be additional areas of emphasis in March.
Spring's day-one depth chart should not be assigned a great deal of meaning, but the first two groups to take the field in the session-ending 11-on-11 period looked like this:
QB: Taysom Hill/Christian Stewart
RB: Jamaal Williams/Algernon Brown
RB: Paul Lasike/Nate Carter
TE: Devin Mahina/Brett Thompson
WR: Kurt Henderson/Nick Kurtz
WR: Colby Pearson/Michael Davis
LT: De'Ondre Wesley/Ului Lapuaho
LG: Solomone Kafu/Kyle Johnson
C: Terrance Alletto/Edward Fusi
RG: Tuni Kanuch/Jordan Black
RT: Michael Yeck/Quinn Lawlor
DE: Graham Rowley/Tomasi Laulile
NT: Travis Tuiloma/Kesni Tausinga
DE: Remington Peck/Theodore King
OLB: Alani Fua/Jordan Egbert
ILB: Jherremya Leuta-Douyere/Austin Heder
ILB: Manoa Pikula/Zac Stout
OLB: Bronson Kaufusi/Sae Tautu
CB: Rob Daniel/Trevor Bateman
S: Craig Bills/Kai Nacua
S: Skye PoVey/Dallin Leavitt
CB: Trent Trammell/Jordan Preator
A number of players were absent on Monday due to offseason injuries or surgeries; players out included OL Brock Stringham (shoulder), LB Michael Alisa (groin), RB Adam Hine (shoulder), DL Logan Taele (foot), DT Marques Johnson (blood clot), WR Mitch Mathews (shoulder), WR Ross Apo (shoulder), RB Iona Pritchard (ankle), CB Jordan Johnson (knee), LB Teu Kautai (shoulder), DL Kalolo Utu (wrist), LB Matthew Relei (shoulder), DB Sam Lee (back).
OL Brayden Kearsley was absent due to academics issues.
Mendenhall said LB Zac Stout has returned to the program after withdrawing from school due to disciplinary issues in late 2012. "He's coming back as a walk-on, without a scholarship, to re-earn it. He has met everything the Dean of Students asked him to do, so it's fun that he's done all that and battled to get back. Hopefully he'll re-earn his scholarship through the fall and then it will be a complete happy ending."
Former BYU defensive back Brandon Bradley has re-joined the program as a defensive graduate assistant, replacing Jason Walker.
DB Dallin Leavitt has moved from corner to safety; he will play his sophomore season in 2014. Other position changes not reported earlier include Josh Carter moving from offensive to defensive line.
BYU continues spring practices with a Wednesday afternoon session.
You can hear post-practice interviews from Mendenhall, Anae, Hill, williams and Kaufusi in "Cougar Cuts," above left.