Nobody's painted it on a shirt or a poster, but BYU begins its fall football camp today with a "quest" to return as Mountain West Conference champions.
Sans a veteran offensive line and two starting receivers, the Cougars return the league's best quarterback, tight end and running back from an offense that led the league in total offense and passing last year.
Defensively, the Cougars returned eight starters until cornerback Brandon Howard decided to leave school. It's a decent defense hoping to be good, and in dreams, it hopes to return to the caliber of the 3-4 front, zone-cover unit that Bryan Kehl led two years ago, the one that gave up only a couple of touchdowns a game.
A club with a senior QB, a squad that will host resident "Big Three" MWC toughies Utah and TCU at home? Well, this Quest is certainly possible, albeit unlabeled as such.
It may have been a telling moment a few weeks ago at the MWC meetings when Bronco Mendenhall, after about 45 minutes of questions from a cadre of reporters, fielded one like this:
What is your biggest worry — what keeps you awake at night?
Mendenhall paused. He had just answered questions about Manase Tonga's eligibility, the departure of D-lineman Ian Dulan, the possible departure of noseguard Russell Tialavea to a mission (resolved now, he'll be back), Howard quitting, updates on the injured, the academically challenged, the junior-college transfers expected on campus, etc.
The pause was long; then he replied:
"I sleep pretty good."
A few sports reporters laughed.
"Here's the way to put it," he said.
"Whether four years seems long for you, it seems like 40 to me. I trust our players. I trust the type of players I've recruited. I think it will work out. Some way, somehow, someone will step up and the coaches will use their talent to the best of their abilities. Will we meet expectations? We'll see how it works out."
BYU enters Mendenhall's fifth season humbled and hungry. I'd compare it to the John Beck era, August 2006. Players then were anxious and eager to get some bile out of their system. They worked harder, longer. Back in those days, they had slogans and mantras like Band of Brothers, etc., to cement their chemistry.
This year, they have the memory of finishing last season 0-2 and watching Utah enjoy a lot of glory in the Sugar Bowl.
"We got humbled a little bit by TCU and some of those other teams, because we thought we were better than we were and we kind of got away from the things and the work that got us there," senior tight end Dennis Pitta said.
"You can't ever forget where you came from and how you got there. That's how you stay on top. So we learned a lot of valuable things last season that will help us this season."
This year's BYU brand is going without a catchy phrase; it's just work and play.
The Oklahoma game in Arlington, Texas, to open the season has BYU's full and undivided attention.
In the spirit of pre-camp coverage, here are some brief predictions of what we'll see in days leading up to the pads going on:
MOST IMPRESSIVE ROOKIE: It will be a battle between Spanish Fork's converted tight-end-to-linebacker Richard Wilson and wide receiver Brett Thompson, a 6-foot-3, light-on-his-feet, big-target receiver from Austin Collie's high school in El Dorado, Calif.
FASTEST PLAYER: Sophomore receiver McKay Jacobsen, a 4.45 guy who, at 5-foot-11, and eight months off his mission to Japan, is reportedly dunking basketballs.
TOUGHEST HITTER: Safety Andrew Rich, period. With Scott Johnson at the back end of the defense, the safeties will be better than the Cougars had a year ago.
SURPRISE GUY: 2006 Alta offensive-line recruit Braden Hansen. Very skilled and should sneak in at guard or tackle for a lot of playing time.
DB ODDS: At the vacant field corner opposite Brandon Bradley at boundary corner, the handicap is thus: 3-to-1 Brian Logan, because he's been in Provo for weeks; 4-to-1 Lee Aguirre; 5-to-1 Corby Eason and Garrett Nicholson. If raw cover talent wins out, it'll be Aguirre.
HALL'S CALL: As a senior, QB Max Hall will be 16 percent more effective this season, although he'll go at it with a tougher schedule and without Indianapolis Colt Collie.
UNGA'S NUMBERS: The big Tongan from nearby Timpview High will gain 1,280 yards and lead the MWC in rushing.
PITTA'S PUNCH: The senior tight end will catch 85 passes and lead the conference in yards per game.
DEFENSIVE NUMBERS: Jaime Hill's 4-3, zone-cover defenders will give up fewer points in 2009; the 2008 average of 21.92 will dip to 17.5 ppg.
PLAIN JANE: Nobody will miss any kind of slogans on T-shirts in 2009.