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BYU football: Cougars anxious to take the field in opener vs. Washington State

BYU quarterback Riley Nelson (13) .
BYU quarterback Riley Nelson (13) .
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is ready for the season to start.

The Cougars kick off the 2012 campaign Thursday against Washington State (8:15 p.m. MT, ESPN), and for him, it couldn't start a moment too soon.

"There's still more to do in terms of mental preparation. But it's time to play," Mendenhall said after Friday's practice. "The players know that and I know that. The trick is to make sure you structure practice in a way to really be leveraging the areas you need work. That's what our job is every day as coaches, to make sure the format helps us get better."

Quarterback Riley Nelson is also eager to play, but he acknowledged that there's still work to do.

"We've got three practices (remaining before the opener)," Nelson said, "and we intend to take full advantage of them."

Linebacker Brandon Ogletree said he and his teammates will be spending every moment they can preparing for WSU.

"I think there's always more you can do to get ready. We're definitely not resting on our laurels or anything," he said. "With an offense that is as complex as Washington State's is going to be, there's never enough studying and film-watching you can do. At the same time, the coaches have done a great job of preparing us. I don't think I'll feel comfortable until the game's over and we're on top on the scoreboard. There's definitely a lot to prepare for with these guys."

Washington State is led by first-year coach Mike Leach, who is installing his famed "Air Raid" passing attack in Pullman. What concerns Ogletree most about WSU?

"I don't think we've seen a downfield passing attack like they have. It's hard for a scout team to replicate it," he said. "Their offense is similar to ours except for their passing routes are more vertical. It presents a unique challenge. We'll be ready for it, but I'm obviously anxious to get out there and play. We'll do all we can to make sure we're ready."

Leach's defensive coordinator is Mike Breske. BYU is familiar with Breske, who was the defensive coordinator at Wyoming when BYU was a member of the Mountain West Conference.

"They've implemented a new system and it's the first game. There's a lot of unknowns," Nelson said of Washington State's defense. "We can see where their defensive coordinator's been and see his tendencies and look at their personnel from their past film. But really, you spend a little time on that, but mostly you spend time on your execution against whatever you see. They could come out and do something completely unexpected. So the focus has to be inward rather than on the opponent."

Mendenhall said the depth chart won't be released until Monday, but he did offer some insights on the position battles he and the coaching staff continue to monitor, including tight end.

Junior Kaneakua Friel has emerged as the starter, while Marcus Mathews has been playing more wide receiver than tight end in recent days to shore up the depth at receiver. Mathews could see action at both receiver and tight end this season.

"There's a good chance," Mendenhall said of Mathews playing both positions. "(New England Patriots coach) Bill Belichick has a great quote: 'The more you can do, the more you can do.' If he can do both, he can do both."

As part of the shuffling, redshirt freshman Terenn Houk has been moved from receiver to tight end, and Houk is on the scout team, said offensive coordinator Brandon Doman. Meanwhile, tight end Devin Mahina, who broke his hand early in fall camp, is expected to return "in a week or so," Doman said. He'll join a group that includes Friel, Austin Holt and Richard Wilson.

Doman is encouraged by what he's seen from the tight ends.

"(Friday) was maybe the best day I've seen them making difficult catches," he said. "Between Richard, Austin, and Kaneakua, I think we'll be in good shape. Kane has probably emerged as our dual-threat guy, where he can be in our flex positions and be an attached player in on I-formations. I suspect he will potentially have more plays than the other guys (Wilson and Holt), who are coming along after ACL surgeries."

Nelson has been impressed with Friel's performance in fall camp and in practice.

"He's done a really good job of catching the ball, getting down field and being an unselfish route-runner," Nelson said. "He still runs hard when he gets double-teamed. He's been very, very consistent. He's a pretty good blocker. The offensive line likes working with him in the run game. So I'm excited for his opportunity."

Mendenhall said the coaches are also evaluating one of the starting guard spots on the offensive line as well as the buck linebacker position. While the coach did not elaborate on the situation, Brock Stringham, who has been hampered with an ankle injury, and Manaaki Vaitai have both been playing right guard. At buck linebacker, Ogletree has been banged up, and freshman Manoa Pikula, who has been Ogletree's backup, has had a lot of reps. But Ogletree said he's healthy. "I feel good. I'm ready to roll. It's the best I've felt in a long time."

Freshman Micah Hannemann is Jordan Johnson's backup at field corner, with senior Robbie Buckner in the mix as well, Mendenhall said.