Freshman, sophomore, junior ... each year of experience in a college football program builds toward the next.
But every season sets the stage for the last one:
This is the final chance for most athletes to step on the football field and give it everything they have.
The BYU football program has 24 seniors on its roster for the 2012 season, which means 24 players have worked and battled for years to culminate their collegiate careers this fall.
Now it’s their turn to guide the Cougars to greatness.
“It’s fun,” said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree. “You want to play with your friends. We all know each other and trust each other. I want to make every effort to leave everything on the field with no regrets.”
The buzz throughout the summer has been about how the seniors, led by quarterback Riley Nelson, took control of the workouts and pushed the team to be better.
“It means a lot,” said Cougar offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. “With a player like Riley (Nelson), sometimes you have settle him down a little bit because it means so much. You see him getting after the guys and he’s already a pretty keyed up guy.”
BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall credits those efforts for giving the Cougars a head start heading into fall camp.
“I think that the benefit so far is that our team is consistent in practice,” he said. “I’m having to do less and they are having to do more, which is ideal.”
There is no bravado or brash predictions by the seniors about the upcoming year. They are simply getting everyone down to business and expecting them to be at their best.
“This is a day you never expected to come,” said senior safety Mike Hague. “You thought you’d be playing football for the rest of your life. But it’s come and you are finally the old dog. You’re almost 25 years old and there are guys in camp that are 17 who are making the same mistakes you were. It makes you open your eyes and makes you appreciate the time you have. You have to take advantage of it.”
The message is clear: They want victories and they are willing to put forth effort necessary to earn them.
“I’m holding myself to a higher standard than I have in past years, just knowing that I’m a senior,” said senior offensive lineman Braden Hansen. “That’s a huge advantage as a team because we have senior guys in every position. That means we have great leadership wherever you turn. We just need to do the work and get ready.”
Senior offensive lineman Braden Brown said: “It’s crazy how fast my career has gone by. I’ve got to put it all out on the field. I need to get healthy and stay healthy. Every single game I have to go all out. This year is special. We have a bunch of guys who have been through a lot together.”
It’s a diverse group of seniors who have united under a common goal. Some have names most Cougar fans wouldn’t recognize, while others have started for four years.
“It’s weird because you are used to people being there that are older than you,” said senior defensive lineman Romney Fuga. “Now everyone’s looking to you. It’s been weird, but at the same time, you have to make the most of it. It hasn’t really hit me and probably won’t until the middle of the season. I’m excited but I’m kind of sad, too.”
This fall BYU has a pair of athletes in defensive linemen Ian Dulan and Russell Tialavea who are back from serving LDS missions with just one more year to play.
“It really instills into you a motivating factor to give it all you have,” Dulan said. “It makes you think in your heart, both mentally and spiritually, that every day might be your last, so make it count. You’ve got to give 100 percent on every rep, every movement.”
Then there’s the unusual story of senior linebacker/defensive lineman Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, who knew almost nothing about the game when he came from Ghana to run track.
“It’s bittersweet for me,” Ansah said. “I’m going to miss it when I leave it, but I really appreciate what I’ve learned and the influence of my teammates and coaches. Football has become a part of me now. It is special to be a senior on the football team.”
Some have toiled for years in the background, and even now have no guarantee they are going to see a lot of playing time.
“It’s been a long road,” said senior quarterback James Lark. “I’ve developed relationships that I’ll treasure forever. I’m ready to go out with a bang. Whether I play or not, a successful year would be us going out undefeated. If it takes me having to do it, then OK. If it doesn’t, then I will find other roles to help the team.”
Each has brought his own personality and abilities to improve the team, and now they are trying to utilize those to make the most of the chance to be a senior.
“It makes a major difference,” Doman said. “Our team hasn’t acted like this or worked like this or been this united in the workload since I’ve been here.”
It’s not too hard for Doman to recall the time when it was his turn to become a senior in 2001, when as the quarterback he led the Cougars to a 12-2 record. That, of course, is the type of year Nelson and the 2012 senior class want to emulate, or even improve on.
“We weren’t interested in losing,” Doman said. “We practiced and prepared with everything correlating to the thought of winning football games. We don’t talk about it and we don’t let them talk about it, but every day of preparation is different. The urgency is different.”
The biggest focus for the 24 seniors is getting the team ready for this fall, but they still recognize that they are a part of something greater than just the results of a single season. They have a responsibility to those younger players who are now where the seniors once were.
“You take them under your wing,” Hague said. “I remember I spent a lot of time with Cameron Jensen, Nate Meikle and Curtis Brown my freshman year. I remember them teaching me about the game and about other things. Instead of pulling the seniority card all of the time, you have to help them realize that it’s going to end eventually. It’s a journey getting there. It’s hard but it’s what you are here to do, to play football and represent the university.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.