PROVO — Coaching big offensive linemen who are older and mature at BYU is alleged to be a huge advantage and Cougar offensive line coach Mark Weber wouldn't have it any other way.
When BYU wins, like the 11-2 Cougars did in 2009, critics routinely tell reporters before or after games with BYU that the Cougars enjoy a big advantage playing athletes who have been on two-year missions. Some soft-petal the criticism, others trumpet it loud to reporters.
Weber, who has coached at UCLA, North Carolina and Oregon State, doesn't flinch a bit: it is a huge advantage and he likes it.
In an interview this fall, Weber praised the maturity, mindset, discipline, experience and knowledge his offensive linemen bring to college football. He says it allowed him to reload in time to face then No. 3 ranked Oklahoma last September after losing starters Ray Feinga, Travis Bright, David Oswald and Dallas Reynolds in 2008.
For a lot of programs, losing four starting O-linemen would be a disaster. For Weber, it became a matter of program maturity to kick in. He had answers.
"That's one of the beauties of this place," Weber said. "These guys are mature young men who wait to play. It is what BYU football has come to be."
It has allowed BYU to reload with a program goal of O-linemen, yes, older athletes, return to football after mission service, get acclimated and then start as juniors and seniors.
As a group, they are more mature than regular freshmen, rookies enrolling in college.
"At BYU, it's a matter of continuity and the coaches who have been here know how to deal with it, especially those who come off missions," said Weber.
BYU doesn't have a corner on players having fun and getting along, but when coaching players who have lived in Brazil, Germany and Mexico can have advantages.
"A lot of people outside the program went into panic mode last year when we lost four starters off the offensive line. If you read the preseason publications, this was supposed to be a major issue for us in 2009. Then we had Houston Reynolds (knee) and Jason Speredon (shoulder) go down. But the inexperience didn't show in the opener against Oklahoma when we started freshman Braden Hansen.
"Jason Speredon was ready to have a great year. We didn't have him at all. We never went into a panic inside the program. We have guys and all of them work hard and they understand football. I told people, we may not have returning starters, but we have players who have been around the program and know what they are doing."?Weber laughs when telling stories of how NFL scouts come on campus and try to gauge the intensity of BYU's offensive linemen in practice. Afterwards, they meet with Weber and ask some funky questions.
"It's funny, some scouts ask questions that are really silly. Like, 'how will Dallas Reynolds handle salty language?' I just laugh, its ridiculous. Matt is a man. He's lived in a foreign country, speaks another language. He doesn't need that. Can they handle it? Yes, they can handle it, these are men."
Asked to explain how coaching O-linemen at BYU was different than Pac-10 or ACC schools, Weber said some individuals are the same but as a group, it is very different.
Here he uses a stereotype to make his point.
"It's different, it has always been this way at BYU. There is a difference because most of these players are two years older. It's different because they've done things in life most college players haven't experienced. As far as the number of guys you get who are mature like this, it is very, very different.
"At another school, you might have a few who stand out. But by and large, as a unit, these players come from stable upbringings and solid supportive families and have established an identity and self-esteem — they have found their individuality earlier in life. They are serious about life, school and football."
Weber said some recruiters at other schools look at LDS athletes who serve missions as a negative. Within the past month, the new head coach at Notre Dame told reporters he'd won his first battle since getting the job replacing Charlie Weis: He'd convinced freshman LDS linebacker Manti Teo not to go on a mission after the season.
Other recruiters might get a player back from a mission and handle him incorrectly.
"When other schools recruit them, they treat them as a junior college transfer. That's a mistake. They have been away for football for a while and you can't just expect them to come in and make that transition. Here at BYU, coaches have learned, these guys are not like JC transfers, they are not ready to play. I didn't know that when I first got here. We have done a great job of getting them back by giving them time."
"It's like R.J. Willing. The first spring off his mission, the first three days he looked pretty good, then it hit. I was impressed. Then the next day, he looked terrible. He couldn't do anything. He didn't have his legs. They didn't recover as quickly as those who had been back a while. You have to handle them differently, give them time to recover and then watch their progress."
An advantage? Older guys? Yes, if managed correctly.
Weber isn't giving it up any time soon.