In March of 2011, the BYU football spring game took place on a cold, rainy day in Provo but proved to be very exciting and ended up foreshadowing the never-say-die role quarterback Riley Nelson would take in the fall.
Just about everything was different in 2012.
The Cougars took the field on a warm afternoon for the annual spring performance at LaVell Edwards Stadium Saturday but due to the rash of injuries and surgeries to starters, most of the scrimmage work was reserved for inexperienced or backup players.
“It was fun to see a lot of younger players playing,” said BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall. “There were a few that caught my eye, which is what we were hoping for. I wasn't measuring execution as much as I was looking at the need to identify players that might be able to be added into the 2-deep.”
Roughly 5,000 Cougar football fans watched the team go through 10 minutes of warmups and 10 minutes of unit drills before BYU brought out the starters who could play for some seven-on-seven skeleton passing drills. The hour-long public practice concluded with a 40-play scrimmage.
But no matter who the offense put on the field, it was the BYU defense that came out on top.
“We knew the crowd was going to be here and we didn’t want to hear them cheer very much, because that means the offense is doing good,” said Cougar senior cornerback/safety Mike Hague. “We wanted to keep a damper on that and I think we did for the most part.”
Even though it didn’t move the ball consistently, there was still some good play on the offensive side of the ball.
“I didn’t know what to expect, honestly,” said Cougar offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. “We had some guys who maybe wouldn’t have had as many opportunities get them today. I wanted to see how the players would be able to handle the increased chaos and intensity of playing in the stadium. Some guys didn’t do a very good job with that, while others it didn’t phase them.”
In the skeleton drills, where the quarterbacks have the advantage of not being truly pressured, the BYU linebackers and secondary made enough plays to keep the offense from getting the ball in the end zone.
“We had a couple of breakdowns that could’ve been bigger gains but luckily the offense dropped the ball,” Hague said. “I think today we wanted to focus on communication, especially with the younger guys to help them get caught up. I think those guys did a really good job today.”
Hague had a nice performance in playing both secondary positions, including picking off a pass from freshman quarterback Alex Kuresa and breaking up another pass from freshman quarterback Taysom Hill during the scrimmage.
“I have a slightly tweaked hamstring, so I didn’t know if I was going to play or not,” Hague said. “It ended up that I could go and I was excited. It was good to just run around. Right now I appreciate being healthy.”
BYU secondary coach Nick Howell said he was pleased by how his unit played throughout the day.
“I thought they played really well,” he said. “We had one blown coverage and it was a communication mistake. I saw a bunch of guys play well. All of them at some point made a play where I was happy.”
The Cougar defense did catch one break in the scrimmage when a cornerback got sucked in on a stop-and-go route by junior wide receiver Skyler Ridley, only to see the pass from senior quarterback James Lark bounce off his fingertips.
Other than that play, however, the BYU defenders stood strong. The longest offensive play of the day was 11 yards on a quick pass to junior wide receiver Dallin Cutler from Lark (a 16-yard pass from Lark to senior running back Austin Jorgensen was called back on an illegal block).
“I was still really pleased,” Doman said. “We made some mistakes with penalties and we had some dropped balls that would’ve been nice to have caught. It was nice to generate some drives. I like what I saw from (running back) Adam Hine and Taysom Hill did a good job at quarterback today.”
During the skeleton drills, the Cougars had a couple of long receptions. Lark hit Cutler for a 35-yard gain at one point, while sophomore quarterback Ammon Olsen connected with sophomore wide receiver Brett Thompson for 36 yards.
But in the actual scrimmage there was little time for the QBs to look down field since the offensive line — which was limited to just seven relatively inexperienced players — struggled handling the defensive front.
BYU senior linebacker/defensive end Ezekial “Ziggy” Ansah spent much of the scrimmage in the backfield and got a sack and a pass knockdown. Junior defensive lineman Mike Muehlmann also made some nice plays and added a sack and pass knockdown of his own.
Overall, however, the Cougar coaches viewed Saturday's action a chance to see what players would step up in the spotlight.
“I think the stadium atmosphere kind of separates the men from the boys,” Doman said. “It is nearly impossible to walk through the tunnel onto this grass and not feel like it is game day. If you don’t, then they need to go do something else. I think the guys walked into this stadium and it was on from the get-go. I think some of the guys who weren’t playing were wishing like crazy they could line up. I hope that feel caused them to give it everything today.”
The BYU offensive coordinator said he thought this year's scrimmage will be particularly effective because the team still has a week of practices to work on the things it didn't do well.
“I love this model,” he said. “I would almost prefer to go three practices a week, lengthen spring one more week, have the spring game earlier and then have some things you can finish off. I like this format and hope we continue it down the road.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.