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Bronco Mendenhall faces problem of talent vs. experience

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Crunch time for playing time and the depth chart and traveling squad.

It's the age-old adage of watching more talented rookies clash on the field with experienced veterans for position. How do you judge it and who are you going to play?

In the NFL, it's usually who is paid the most money. In college, it isn't that simple.

BYU's Bronco Mendenhall explained how tough that dilemma can be for coaches everywhere, and while he leaves a lot of those decisions to his staff, if the decision boils down to his vote, he'll err on the side of the guys who have been in the program and invested blood and treasure.

Including the very visible QB race, this is the meat of what's happening with position forays among the inside linebackers, tight ends, receivers and running backs in the Cougar camp, which will feature another 70-play evaluation scrimmage today.

So far you have freshman Jake Heaps battling Max Hall's backup, Riley Nelson, at quarterback. On Friday, Mendenhall praised freshman Zac Stout, who, along with freshmen Alani Fua and Kyle Van Noy, are battling with first-team linebackers with lettermen's jackets.

At receiver, Ross Apo and Cody Hoffman are freshmen looking for a lot of attention. Hoffman, who redshirted last year, has moved into the rotation and two-deep.

Freshman RB Josh Quezada is looking for playing time in a void left by Harvey Unga, and his challengers are all veterans. Freshman Kori Gaines is trying to find a sliver of time behind Zed Mendenhall at fullback.

On the defensive line, freshmen Tayo Fabuluje and Graham Rowley have been very impressive and are chalking up plays behind the first unit.

At center, Blair Tushaus is looking for a meaningful role, as is defensive back Kori Gaines.

This 2010 recruiting class is impressive. Anyone who has seen a regular number of practice sessions has acknowledged this infusion of talent is very noticeable from one freshman class.

This talent-versus-experience clash has made for a very spirited, hard-hitting, intense fall camp to date. Mendenhall loves it; he doesn't have to ask folks to ratchet things up.

The clash of talent against experience? Mendenhall calls it a predicament of talent meeting the established culture.

"Well, it's an agonizing one because you have to judge what is best for the immediate season, immediate game and what's best for the future of the program," said Mendenhall.

That's where it gets sticky. Mendenhall has started freshmen before, people like kicker Justin Sorensen, Ethyn Manumalenua, Austin Collie and Harvey Unga, and he'll almost certainly look to freshmen tight ends to start this season.

But the challenge impinges on old school philosophies that have proven true over time.

"You have to protect the culture of the program, players who have been with you a long, long time, perhaps as long as three years, fighting from a walk-on spot to a special teams role and now get their chance but are going up against a talented true freshman," said Mendenhall.

If you trash those faithful mainstays, you may create discord in the ranks.

"If you look at sheer investment and what's best for the culture of the team in place of performance, I usually err on that side," said Mendenhall.

"I've had some bad experiences where I've ruined freshmen by playing them too early when they haven't invested the time getting up in the early morning to work with their group, working on the scout team, see what a redshirt year is like, etc. There is something about that which provides a specific stability to your program and culture of the program that's important to me.

"If the staff is over here, I'm usually over there, protecting the culture and how important it is to be a part of it," the Cougars' head coach said.

While today's scrimmage isn't a make or break or do or die, according to Mendenhall, it is very important for the evaluation process.

It will be interesting to see how this thing spins out. Will a faster, more athletic guy win out over a slower, less strong but experienced vet? Will a guy with a stronger arm be relegated behind a letterman? This is what makes the next two weeks in August so much fun.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com