Saturday, June 18, 2005

Know Thine Enemy: BYU's Bronco Mendenhall | by Michael

(This is part 2 of a series.)

Last week we profiled Greg Robinson, Syracuse's new head coach. This week we turn our attention to Brigham Young University, and its rookie head coach, Bronco Mendenhall.

Bronco Mendenhall, Brigham Young University

Bio/Record: Check out Mendenhall’s bio. At thirty-eight years old, he is the second youngest coach in Division-1 football. After serving as the Cougars’ defensive coordinator the last two years, Mendenhall was chosen to replace his boss, Gary Crowton, who was fired.

A two-year starter at Oregon State as a defensive back, after graduation Mendenhall stayed on with the Beavers as a graduate assistant. From there, he went on to coach at several small schools including Northern Arizona and Snow College, before finally connecting with Rocky Long at Oregon State. It was in Corvalis, and again, at the University of New Mexico, where Mendenhall became a disciple of Long’s 3-3-5 defense.

One good sign from Mendenhall is how he embraced the rich history of BYU, and as part of that, he’s re-introducing the uniforms BYU used under Lavell Edwards. But how does the rest of his program stack up?

Notable coaches: There are few big names on Mendenhall’s staff but there is plenty of coaching experience. Two of the more recognizable names include offensive coordinator Robert Anae, Ph.D, a former BYU player who was previously the OL coach for Texas Tech, and Brandon Doman, another former BYU player and the youngest member of the staff. Doman was the starting Cougar QB in 2001, and his exceptional running skills allowed the then-coaching staff to insert a little option into the passing attack. He will coach the QBs, although the option is not expected to be a part of Anae’s offense. The rest of the staff is filled with coaches with significant MWC, WAC and Pac-10 experience.

Offensive Philosophy:
Mendenhall has always favored aggressive defenses, and when it came time to determining an offensive identity, he stayed true to himself and fancied an aggressive offense. Smart move. Texas Tech has been an explosive offense ever since Mike Leach took over the program, and in hiring Robert Anae, Mendenhall found not only an assistant with a similar mindset but also a coach with BYU ties (another smart move).

If you've watched the Red Raiders play, you are probably familiar with their extremely wide OL splits. In March 2002, Anae wrote an article for American Football Monthly where he discussed his OL splits philosophy – it’s a great read. According to Anae, widening the OL splits accomplishes four primary goals: a larger pocket is created for the QB, wider passing lanes are established, wider running lanes open up and finally, the OL are more effective on screen passes because they are more spread out and closer to their blocking responsibilities.

While Anae is inexperienced as a playcaller, OL play is an integral yet underrated element of Texas Tech's recent success, and Mendenhall also retained Cougar assistant Lance Reynolds, who has the offensive background to complement Anae's skills.

Developing an offense in Provo similar to Texas Tech’s is going to pay huge dividends, possibly as early as this year. The new offense plays directly into the recruiting strengths of BYU, a program with a rich history of producing great quarterbacks. The next one may be John Beck, who reaffirmed his grip on the starting position this past spring.

Beck started ten games last year and earned second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors. He should easily be able to increase upon last year’s numbers, which included 2,563 yards and 15 touchdowns. Given the experience that Beck returns to the 2005 offense, it’s hard to imagine this offense not creating problems for a Mountain West conference whose teams have little experience against the scheme; the Cougars could surprise a lot of teams, as this article (subscription required) mentions.

Once again, players are talking about the simplicity of the new system. This is commonly seen whenever players compare any new system to a discarded one, but I think there is more truth to this cliche in Provo because of Crowton's complex option route-based passing attack. Because of that, I do think this new offense will be easier to learn (, subscription required), as TE Daniel Coates mentions:
“It’s so much easier. The reads and getting to where you need to go. The last offense was more difficult to where everybody was confused. Now it’s more like everyone goes here and everyone goes there. This play you go here and that play you go there and there’s not as much guessing.”

Early returns from spring practice were mixed, but I think that the writer ignored an important consideration. Most of the time in spring practice the defense is ahead of the offense, and it's almost certain that this would be the case when a defensive scheme remains intact while a new offense is being constructed.

Defensive Philosophy: Scheme-wise, this will be the same BYU defense that Brady Quinn and the rest of the offense saw in 2003 and 2004. I’m not going to waste your time summarizing a defense that ND fans have seen two years running, but for our more ambitious readers, I’d recommend two insightful articles. First, an excellent run-down on Mendenhall’s defense can be found here, and if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the 3-3-5 and its development by current New Mexico head coach Rocky Long, I’d recommend this 2003 Las Vegas Sun article.

One final note on the defense: it was originally designed to help defend spread passing attacks, and like the option, its rareness made preparation more difficult, as Urban Meyer suggests in the following quote.

“You wish you had a bye week to prepare. Any time you play a unique style of offense or defense, you wish you had an extra week to prepare. And that’s a very difficult team to prepare for."

However, four teams now use it in the Mountain West Conference – UNLV, BYU, Air Force and New Mexico. Because it’s becoming a bit more common, will the 3-3-5 prove less successful as teams adapt to its strength and weaknesses?

Predictions: It’s difficult to read up on Mendenhall and come away with any opinion other than he has done his homework, prepared a thorough gameplan and is now executing it – while making adjustments where necessary. Check out the following excerpt from this article:

Mendenhall has sought counsel from inside and outside. He's tapped in to traditional BYU sources and invited advice from professional organizational behavioral scientists including Paul Gustavson, a former football player who's San Jose-based Organization Planning and Design, Inc., has serviced the likes of National Semiconductor, the Veterans Administration, AT&T Credit Corp and NASA.

Mendenhall has broken down every aspect of BYU football, operations, budget, personnel and evaluated efficiency. He's tweaked every part of BYU football from communications, academics, workouts, practices and staff assignments to summer camps. BYU has a database of 1,700 former athletes. They've targeted them with letters, inviting their involvement. They've sent out invitations for former players to attend practice, breakout meetings and scrimmage on April 1. They've had response, the oldest, a player from 1934. The idea is to spread ownership of the program, pay respect to tradition and those who've already invested. In the process, Mendenhall has a map of the country marked with former player locations, men who could help identify talent and have agreed to be eyes and ears of BYU football.

For instance, if he clicks in talent-rich California, goes to Orange County and clicks on Costa Mesa, the names of two former Cougars pop up. They are Steve Sanders and Jeff Wilcox. These guys can't "officially" recruit for BYU under NCAA guidelines. But they can watch, evaluate, be bird dogs and report on any LDS or non-LDS player who fits BYU's profile within a ward or stake boundary. Mendenhall's crew will then finish the process.

Coaches like Mendenhall don’t fail; they simply refuse to accept failure.

If there’s one aspect of his management plan that concerns me, it’s the possibility that by wearing both the HC and DC hats, he might be taking on too much too soon. But then again, his team is already familiar with his defensive schemes, so perhaps I’m reading too much into it. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Mendenhall became the Bob Stoops of the MWC and returned BYU to consistent national prominence...nor would it surprise me if, after years of success at BYU, Mendenhall returned to his alma mater when the Oregon State job next opens up.

The Weis Factor

Weis and Mendenhall have never squared off, and it’s a decent guess that Weis has never seen a 3-3-5 defense before, except on tape.

Charlie's assistants do have some experience with variations of the defense. OL coach John Latina has seen it every year at Ole Miss because Joe Lee Dunn took his version of the defense from Mississippi State to Memphis at the same time the Tigers jumped onto the schedule. Additionally, WR coach Rob Ianello has seen it as well in Wisconsin’s games against UNLV in ’04 and West Virginia in ’02 and ’03.

All in all, it should be an interesting matchup between the NFL vet and the cagey up-and-comer.