PROVO — Even though BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is going into his sixth season at the helm, it didn't seem that way to him as the Cougars held their first practice of fall camp Saturday.
"It almost feels like we're starting over," Mendenhall said, referring to the high volume of young players who are looking to replace a host of veterans who have moved on.
"This group I think kind of has a chip on its shoulder," the coach added. "With so many spots up for grabs and no real returning stars, so to speak, I think there's a real heightened sense of competition."
With several starting jobs wide open, the newcomers are looking to contribute early.
"They're looking really, really good, especially for being true freshmen," said senior cornerback Brian Logan. "It's exciting for us as a team to know we have a lot of spots that need to be filled. We have the confidence in them to come out and fill those spots and make plays. I think the younger guys will eventually be just as good as the guys we've lost."
One of the most hotly contested races is at quarterback, where junior Riley Nelson and true freshman Jake Heaps traded drives during 11-on-11 drills. Heaps led two touchdown drives, including a 44-yard TD pass to wide receiver McKay Jacobson on the final play of practice. Nelson led one touchdown drive, capped by a one-yard run. Sophomore James Lark engineered one drive.
Nelson said the quarterback battle is a good thing for the Cougars.
"It's going to raise the play of all of us, and it's going to better the position," he said. "Chances are someone or multiple people are going to get hurt, so we all need to be ready to play."
Asked about all the offseason scrutiny about the quarterback battle, Nelson said he hasn't paid attention to it. "All four of us are going to do what (the coaches) ask of us and let the chips fall where they may," he said.
Mendenhall reiterated that he and the coaching staff plan to be patient when it comes to deciding on a starting quarterback.
"If there ends up being someone that really emerges and pulls away in camp, that will be great," he said. "If not, I'll just wait until that happens. I'll try to present as many situations as possible for us to make that assessment."
Mendenhall is optimistic about what he saw from the offense. "Our receivers are very talented. Our offensive line, I'm very impressed with," he said. "We're capable at tight end, we're just young. To me, it's a matter of playing the game together. We have the right weapons in place, and we have the right talent. They just need to play together. I know they're capable, it's just going to take time to get them on the same page."
Saturday's practice was typical of a first day of fall camp, Mendenhall said. "Lots of energy, lots of enthusiasm, not much execution. Willing hearts, willing spirits, kids trying hard, anxious to play, nervous, and the execution left something to be desired."
"It was a good battle back and forth," Nelson said about the competition between the offense and defense. "I think we're very athletic, talented and hungry and competitive on both sides of the ball."
Among the veterans who stood out Saturday was junior running back J.J. DiLuigi, who gained 36 yards on five carries and had one catch for 10 yards.
"I was impressed with J.J. today," Mendenhall said. "He looked really fit, he looked quick, and he looked confident. I liked his leadership."
Nelson is glad BYU, which was picked to finish third in the Mountain West Conference, is flying under the radar this season. The Cougars open the 2010 season at home against Washington.
"I hope people look past us because they're going to be in for a surprise," he said. "We've got a good football team, and we're not going to shy away from saying that. It's obviously going to come with lots of work, and we're not there yet. But we don't have to be ready on Day One of camp. We have to be ready Sept. 4. And you can get better through the season in hopes of winning a conference championship. It's all a long journey and a long process. It's not a sprint. I feel very encouraged."