PROVO — After suffering through three straight losing seasons at BYU, several former Cougar players are hoping for a fresh start — in the National Football League.

Linebacker Brady Poppinga, offensive guard Scott Young, punter/placekicker Matt Payne and safety Aaron Francisco are among those who could be selected in this weekend's NFL draft or sign a free-agent contract.

Cougar cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell, who serves as a liaison between the BYU football program and the NFL, says that based on his conversations with NFL scouts, he is optimistic that Poppinga and Young will be drafted. "Both Brady and Scott have the chance to go on the first day," he said.

Poppinga, Young, Payne and Francisco each participated in the NFL combine in Indianapolis in February. "Anytime you get invited to the combine," Mitchell said, "you have the chance to be drafted."

Young and Poppinga helped their draft stock with strong showings at the combine, Mitchell said.

The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Young, who was a defensive lineman before switching to the O-line last season, was named a second-team all-MWC performer last season after starting all 11 games at offensive guard.

Young turned heads at the combine by recording 43 reps on the 225-pound lift and finishing second in the long jump, third in the 40-yard dash, third in the vertical leap, second in the 10-yard dash, second in the seven-cone drill and fourth in the three-cone drill. Young, who has been the strongest player on the BYU football team the last three years since transferring from Dixie State College, benches 540 pounds.

"Scott did an excellent job with his quickness, strength and athletic ability at the combine. He's on the rise," Mitchell said. "He was off-the-charts at the combine, finishing in the top three in almost every drill. He has a tremendous upside. He has shown he has mental toughness. The only downside to Scott is he's only played the position one year. But he progressed game after game after game."

Poppinga played three seasons at defensive end for the Cougars before switching to outside linebacker last year. What position might he play at the next level?

"It depends on the scheme," Mitchell said. "He could play defensive end or linebacker. I think he could be an excellent middle linebacker. He's just a good football player. Every scout said he's a throwback and plays the game with a passion. He's always making plays."

Poppinga, a first-team all-MWC performer, holds the conference career record for sacks with 20. As a three-year starter, he was the leader of the Cougar defense. Poppinga recorded 79 tackles, 12 tackles-for-loss, six sacks, five quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble in 2004.

The versatile Payne is projected to be a punter on the next level and could serve as a backup kicker. It doesn't hurt that he isn't afraid to make tackles on kickoff coverage (see last year's Boise State game). Payne stands in second place on BYU's all-time scoring list and owns the school record of 67 consecutive extra points. In his collegiate career, the North Ogden native kicked a pair of 53-yard field goals and he booted a 79-yard punt.

"Because Matt can do both (punt and kick) and do them very well, that makes him more valuable," Mitchell said. "Whatever team gets him is going to get a good punter and kicker."

Francisco, named to the all-MWC first-team in 2004, played in 49 consecutive games during his Cougar career. As part of coach Bronco Mendenhall's blitz-based 3-3-5 defensive scheme, Francisco played a major role on the BYU defense as the "cougarback," recording 88 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, a sack, an interception and seven pass breakups last season. Francisco may not have the speed that NFL teams crave, but Mitchell says he possesses many intangibles.

"Aaron is a great football player," he said. "You can't measure the passion and innate abilities that he has."

Defensive linemen John Denney and Shaun Nua and defensive backs Brandon Heaney and Jon Burbidge could sign as free agents, Mitchell said.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com