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Cougars’ spring practices show a different, re-energized team

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PROVO — Bronco Mendenhall opened BYU spring football Monday with a newness and freshness that is, well, far more energized under his reign.

His two new offensive coaches, running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Joe DuPaix and receivers coach Ben Cahoon bring in a youth movement; they're faces filled with energy, vigor and new set of ideas in the Cougar camp.

DuPaix, hired from Navy, runs around so much, Mendenhall may have to put ankle weights on him so he can peg him down. Cahoon, the CFL's all-time leading receiver, is cerebral and academic in his approach and Bronco likes his demand for precision in what receivers must do.

The newness isn't in just attitude. It's in form and substance. Monday's practice centered on a ton of fundamentals, a lot of drills, sprints around cones, motion designed to increase balance, footwork, hip flexibility and in displacement of body weight through speed. You saw linemen moving a blocking sled down the field and a diesel tractor pulling it back.

There was more emphasis on getting the basics nailed down. Time to do so is clearly invested as part of the day.

You saw veteran assistant head coach Lance Reynolds taking up a new post with the tight ends instead of the running backs. And those tight ends are getting more attention and coaching by the factor of about eight or 10 than they've had.

"I look up in a play and my eyes immediately go to the running backs," said Reynolds. "It's a natural reaction. But I love working with these guys now."

A year ago, the tight ends were lost in the shuffle. Now they are being challenged and Reynolds is holding the whip. Where that group migrated from drills with receivers to offensive linemen like practice nomads, they now have their own role and identity and designated coach. Reynolds looks recharged professionally.

You saw referees on site from the beginning of practice on the first day.

You saw Brandon Doman as the offensive coordinator. He's like a surgeon giddy to grip the scalpel.

You listened to reporters ask Mendenhall about the quarterback position after just witnessing Jake Heaps take 70 percent of the snaps as reigning New Mexico Bowl MVP.

"We are miles ahead of where we were last spring," said Reynolds.

And BYU should be.

They have a starter at QB. They have more offensive linemen available, albeit one-third of them are out recovering from injuries and surgery. They still have more bodies on the line than a year ago in spring where scrimmages were shadow boxing.

Instead of getting waylaid by career rusher Harvey Unga's suspension from school at the end of last year's spring drills, forcing the offense to reload on the run for fall, now veteran Bryan Kariya looks bigger and stronger. So do J.J. DiLuigi and Joshua Quezada and they are seasoned veterans, not fruit on the vine waiting to get ripe.

BYU's offense will be different, although the core will remains the same. Starter Jake Heaps will take more snaps from under center, giving him more options while confusing the defense that may not be able to key off the shotgun formations. There will be less predictability while maintaining traditional execution.

Instead of USC middle linebacker transfer Uona Kaveinga waiting to hear if he's eligible after jumping off the Trojan ship, he is vying for a starting spot, taking charge on the field.

Instead of the upperclassmen and veterans feeling threatened by freshmen and sabotaging them with "put 'em in their place" and "protect our culture" bravo sierra and "pay the price" rhetoric, the entire team has moved forward and put pettiness aside. The rookies are pretty good and are playing.

The cornerbacks, Robbie Buckner, Jordan Johnson, Preston Hadley and others look more athletic. We'll have to wait and see with the safeties.

It's a different feel to BYU football. Independence hangs on the horizon with an ESPN window ready to hop through.

"What makes this spring unique is I really believe we are gaining momentum," said Mendenhall after the first 25-segment practice ended.

"From what I saw today, it looks like the team believes we can be good. Then we have new leadership and coaches and a new offensive system, so it feels like a fresh start, even if this has been seven years. It feels like beginning all over again, only from a further place than we started from six years ago."

What does it all mean?

It is too early to say. Even Mendenhall admits what he witnessed on Monday with close friend, former Colorado and Boise State coach Dan Hawkins observing in the wings is to early to predict as a product for a few more weeks.

But it's different.

No question.

This is not the BYU football team of spring 2010, that is certain.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com