PROVO — By dawn's early light on Brigham Young University's practice field, Bronco Mendenhall is running down field. His defense has just forced a fumble and is carrying the ball into the end zone. Mendenhall is right behind them, cheering them on. Lean and fit, he looks like he could strap on a helmet and play. He demands all-out effort and expects nothing less from himself.
He exudes intensity, a trait that has rubbed off on his players.
Yet walk into Mendenhall's Smith Fieldhouse office and it becomes clear the man is not completely consumed with football. BYU's new defensive coordinator works from behind a desk adorned with photos of his wife, Holly, and two sons, Cutter, 4, and Breaker, 2.
Family is extremely important to him. Another passion is horses. Bronco — yeah, that's his given name — grew up in Alpine, where the Mendenhall clan raises the animals. By coming home to Utah County, his boys can experience a similar lifestyle to the one he enjoyed as a youngster.
Bronco and Holly are expecting their third son soon — bet the ranch his name will be horse-related, too. Mendenhall is not disclosing the name they've chosen, but he seems to enjoy keeping people guessing. Especially on the field.
Like his first name, and his defense, Mendenhall's interests outside football are unconventional. In addition to his love of horses, he likes to surf and participate in triathlons in the summers. Come football season, though, Mendenhall is all business.
In December, Coach Gary Crowton hired him away from New Mexico to replace longtime coordinator Ken Schmidt. At a program that is synonymous with offense, Mendenhall, 37, hopes someday when BYU is mentioned in national circles, people will think defense, too.
BYU's defense, much maligned the past couple of years, gets a fresh start with Mendenhall.
Mendenhall's defense is described as an aggressive, gambling style — an identical twin to Crowton's aggressive, gambling style of offense.
"It's fun to watch," Crowton said. "That's what attracted me to it in the first place." Mendenhall admits that at this point, with spring drills in full swing, he doesn't know what's going to happen this fall. He's still getting acquainted with the players. Besides, his defense is always evolving. "It has taken on a different flavor at each spot I've been," he says.
In other words, expect the unexpected.
In 1980, BYU opened its season in Albuquerque. The Cougars were coming off of an 11-1 season and boasted junior quarterback Jim McMahon. New Mexico had a new head coach and a new defensive coordinator named Joe Lee Dunn. The Lobos were underdogs.
That night, Dunn unveiled an unorthodox blitzing scheme that confused the Cougars. New Mexico's defense sacked McMahon nine times, and the Lobos upset BYU, 25-21.
That game has not been forgotten. Twenty years later, former BYU coach LaVell Edwards remembered, "When Joe Lee Dunn was with New Mexico, he had guys coming from everywhere. It was like he was dropping them out of the sky."
Dunn eventually became the head coach and hired Rocky Long as an assistant. Long learned Dunn's defense and he later surfaced at Oregon State, where Mendenhall joined the staff. Mendenhall absorbed that philosophy and, at 29, became the youngest defensive coordinator in Pac-10 history.
After coaching stints at Oregon State, Louisiana Tech and New Mexico, Mendenhall now brings this style to BYU. So it is that 23 years after Dunn's 'D' did a number on the Cougars, a version of that defense is rooting itself in Provo — via Albuquerque.
As evidenced by spring practices, this defense is a stark contrast from past BYU defenses, in philosophy as well as in scheme. It unleashes constant pressure on quarterbacks and forces opposing offenses into turnovers and mistakes.
There are other differences. Instead of the middle linebacker making the defensive calls in the huddle, Mendenhall does that from the sidelines with hand signals. The Cougar defense won't huddle at all.
"There are a couple of reasons for that. The way offenses today try to disguise their personnel, it allows us to be more accurate with a call by waiting longer," Mendenhall says. "Also, I think it's a complete waste of time for the defense to huddle before the ball is snapped because they have to come in to do it, then they have to run back out to where they were going to play anyway."
With Mendenhall making the calls, all 11 players must pay close attention. Or else.
"It's their responsibility to get the call. If they want to make plays and be successful in this defense, they'd better know what to do. This system requires a level of accountability from seeing the call, executing their assignments, then playing as hard as they can."
The way BYU recruits in the future will change as coaches seek speed at every defensive position. Still, that isn't the only quality Mendenhall looks for in players.
"This defense lends itself to speed and being active," he says. "Those are two different things to me. There are a lot of fast players who are not active. Active players come in all shapes and sizes and speeds."
In his first season, Mendenhall is working with players he did not recruit, but he likes what he sees from a team that returns every player but two from the two-deep chart in 2002. While he's watched the film of every game the Cougars played last year, decisions won't be based upon previous experience.
To Mendenhall, it doesn't matter if a player was highly recruited or not. It doesn't matter if he is on scholarship or a walk-on.
"What I'm concerned about is players who are willing to play hard," he says. "The goal is to have our best 11 defensive football players on the field."
The two strong safeties will be called "cat safeties." The new terms have been introduced "because they are such distinct positions, and we ask them to do so many different things," Mendenhall says.
When it comes to creating a top-rated defense, Mendenhall is proven. In his first year at UNM, the defense was rated in the high 70s nationally. It improved to the 50s in year two, then leaped to No. 17 in year three. It was No. 18 in year four. Last season, the Lobos slipped to No. 30, but he explains that by the end of the year, "we were playing better than we ever had."
At BYU, Mendenhall faces a new challenge. "It will be a unique situation here because our offense at New Mexico was ball-control, run-oriented," he says. "Our offense here is explosive, wide-open, and our number of plays might be more than we had before."
Then again, Mendenhall knows how to adapt. The vision for his defense is set.
"Our No. 1 goal is playing hard," he says. "I would like to lead the conference in defense and be exceptional on a national front. I would like that to happen for the players and the program."
Based on Mendenhall's track record, there's no reason to believe it won't.