The defense is typically a little farther along in timing and technique in spring football practices. For Brigham Young University, this year's advantage is more than just seasonal - it's a matter of experience.
The Cougars anticipate the return of nine defensive players with full- or part-time starting experience from last year's team that went 14-1, earned a No. 5 national ranking and won the Cotton Bowl. "If we keep improving, we have a chance to be pretty decent," says Y. defensive coordinator Ken Schmidt in the standard cautious-statement style of spring drills.All four of BYU's top defensive linemen have been seasoned as starters, with junior Ed Kehl (6-foot-5, 280 pounds) and sophomore Byron Frish (6-5, 265) anchoring the ends and junior Daren Yancey (6-6, 275) and senior Harland Ah You (6-2, 280) tabbed on the inside.
Kehl and Yancey haven't seen action this spring - the former is recovering from a shoulder injury, while the latter is not in school this semester. Their absences have allowed the likes of sophomore Andrew Nash (6-5, 245), junior Issiah Magalei (6-2, 285) and redshirt freshman Hance Olsen (6-4, 266) to step in and be noticed.
While the Cougars face the prospects of replacing standout middle linebacker Shay Muirbrook, the two outside starters are back - senior Spencer Reid (6-1, 245) and junior Brad Martin (6-1, 240). Sophomore Rob Morris (6-3, 245) and junior Jeff Ellis (6-1, 220) have been making names for themselves in the middle, with Schmidt labeling the race as "neck and neck."
Cornerback Omarr Morgan (5-10, 160) is back for his senior season at cornerback, and he's visually and verbally assuming defensive leadership this spring. But gone are Tim McTyer, Lane Hale and Eddie Sampson, making the Y. backfield the least-experienced defensive squad.
However, the secondary is not starting from scratch. The two safeties - junior Jason Walker (6-2, 200) and senior Chris Ellison (5-10, 185) - were part-time starters last year, while senior cornerback Ben Cook saw considerable quality game time in 1996. Joining on most nickel formations will be sophomore Tyler Nelson (6-3, 210).
Schmidt said he expects the Cougars' overall experience and week-by-week 1996 successes to help his defense avoid the slow start that plagued it last season, for which he blames inexperience - particularly along the defensive front. But since the Cougar defense carries more game-time credentials this year, Schmidt is hoping for more of a head start in 1997.
GETTING OFFENSIVE: At the end of Tuesday's workout, BYU's first and second offensive units looked much sharper in a mini-scrimmage (20 total plays, mostly full contact) than they showed at Friday's scrimmage at Cougar Stadium.
Junior quarterback Paul Shoemaker completed three of four pass attempts during his 10-play set with the first unit against the Y. defensive starters. He linked up with receiver Ben Horton on a post pattern for a would-be touchdown on the first play and two plays later connected with running back Aaron Cupp for a sideline swing pass that could have been a scoring play as well.
On three other pass plays, the Cougar defense overwhelmed the protection, resulting in two sacks and one early whistle.
JC transfer quarterback Riley Jensen completed two of his four attempts in the second 10-play set, with the defensive highlights being a formidable pass rush and linebacker Desmond Lomax's interception in the offensive backfield. BYU coach LaVell Edwards whistled the end of practice before sophomore Kevin Feterik - the third QB hopeful - could take any snaps.
SCRIMMAGE: The Cougars finish the week with a 3 p.m. scrimmage Thursday in Cougar Stadium.