Anyone remember when football was a game about “three yards and a cloud of dust?”
For most teams at just about any level, football has changed from being a game that was completely about physicality to one that is much more about finesse.
The main culprit?
And BYU certainly played its part in the evolution of the sport.
The advent of the passing game -- which Hall-of-Fame head coach LaVell Edwards and the Cougars helped develop nearly 40 years ago -- meant defenses could no longer focus just on the line of scrimmage because the ball would start sailing over their heads to receivers running past them.
In 2014, with spread attacks and up-tempo offenses, speed could be called the biggest factor in the game.
“Speed is always good in football so the more fast guys you have the better off you are going to be,” BYU defensive coordinator Nick Howell said.
One of the things Cougar head coach Bronco Mendenhall emphasized that he was looking to improve on this year was the overall team speed and he said this fall that he likes how that is changing.
“I love the progress we’ve made,” Mendenhall said. “There is still some room to improve but they have to be players that fit BYU. The continued focus is that as you look for speed, athleticism and players of all abilities, they have to want BYU and the standards and to be part of our program, all that comes with it.”
He said that what he has seen during the 2014 fall camp is that he has a team that is more explosive.
“If eye control isn’t right by the defense, the ball can go by them much faster than it has been and at more places,” he said. “It’s not only running back or only one receiver. We can put more players on the field that have that ability which is harder to defend. Similarly, we’ll be able to do that defensively which gives you a chance to match up against the teams that are spreading the field.”
The unit where that has been most visible has been with the receivers, where a number of newcomers have upgraded the number of fast guys the Cougars can put on the field.
“On paper, at receiver they should go far deeper in terms of playmakers that worry defenses than they’ve gone in recent years,” former BYU lineman and current ESPN college football analyst Trevor Matich said. “They’ve had the tall guy who can jump up and catch it, but then gets dragged down right where he is. All of a sudden now you are going to have three, four, five guys who can make a catch and break it for 80 yards.”
The person who may benefit most with those weapons is Cougar junior quarterback Taysom Hill, who now has options when he drops back to pass.
“Speed is everything in college football, especially with everything we are trying to do,” Hill said. “We’re spreading everyone out and we want to get mismatches. We want to find the one-on-ones and if you can’t win on the one-on-ones, then we are in trouble. Speed is a big thing, especially outside. Inside we’ve got matchups with linebackers and safeties and so when you have speed and you can exploit mismatches, then we are in good situations.”
BYU wide receiver coach Guy Holliday, who is working to develop and integrate Mitch Mathews, Ross Apo, Jordan Leslie, Nick Kurtz, Devon Blackmon and Keanu Nelson among others, said just knowing a guy might be able to beat you down the field changes the game.
“When you can run, you stress the defense definitely,” he said. “It helps open up the underneath things and then the DBs can’t just sit on you all the time. They have to respect the fact that you can run. I think in slot we are a lot faster playing a couple of guys there. We’re more flexible and can take advantage of matchups.”
But while the Cougar offense might be upping the speed level, so is the BYU defense, according to Howell.
“Rob (Daniels) is fast, JJ (Jordan Johnson) is fast, Craig (Bills) is fast, Kai Nacua is fast, Alani (Fua) is fast,” Howell said. “We have a lot of fast guys.”
Bills, a senior, said he sees the Cougar defense which has the pieces it needs to square off against that offense every day in practice.
“I feel like this is an athletic team we have and I’d say it would be up there with any team that has ever been together at BYU,” he said. “We have a lot of athletes who can make plays. Any time you have guys who want to work hard and make plays, then you can have a really good football team and that’s what I feel like we have.”
The benefit, according to both the players and the coaches, is that both sides are being pushed to be better because of that speed.
“On offense we have some receivers who look like they are going to be pretty fast,” Howell said. “If we can get better at down-the-field throws and they can get better at down-the-field throws, then we’ll probably score more points and our opponents will probably score less. That’s going to be good.”
Mendenhall likes how that potential could translate onto the field, particularly against the top-level opponents.
“Rather than having to look on the sideline and find who else can possibly do this, we’ve addressed -- especially as an independent playing the toughest teams on the road and then seeing what that’s going to look like -- we’ve addressed some of that with personnel and I think that has shown,” Mendenhall said.
If BYU wants to be competitive, this appears to be the direction it had to go. Now Cougar fans -- and former legends -- have some high hopes for what the payoff will be.
“We’re turning out good teams and good players,” former BYU star and Hall-of-Fame NFL quarterback Steve Young said earlier this summer. “We’re in good shape -- but we kind of expect to be in great shape. I think the expectations -- and Bronco’s expectations -- are to threaten the Top 10 every year or the Top 25 at least. That’s where we want to be. We have to have that kind of mindset because we are independent. There are big wins that need to come every fall and we have to develop the mindset that we can do that. My expectations personally are very high.”