There was a reason they turned to the pass: It was futile to try to play smash-mouth football simply because they couldn’t sign the big, blue-chip recruits who could make it work. LaVell Edwards recognized this and decided the only way to win was with finesse — passing. – Doug Robinson

As BYU approaches the start of another football season, one thing is clear: The Cougars have lost their identity, or, if you will, their brand — their calling card.

It’s no longer accurate to call BYU “Pass U.” It’s even a stretch to call the school “Quarterback U.,” although their current starter at that position, Taysom Hill, is a fine college quarterback, if not yet a proven passer.

During one 18-year stretch, the Cougars had five first-team All-America quarterbacks and seven winners of the Sammy Baugh Trophy (eight if you count two that were won by Ty Detmer), which is presented to the nation’s top passer. The Cougars haven’t had a first-team All-American QB or a Baugh winner since Steve Sarkisian in 1996.

For six straight seasons the Cougars have run more than they've passed — an outrage that occurred only one time in the previous 10 years (in 2001 they still threw the ball 49 percent of the time). During those years, from 2009 to 2014, the number of pass plays per season dropped to 47 percent, 45, 48, 49, 40 and 46, respectively. Their average national ranking in pass offense during those six years: 47th.

During the previous 10 years, they ranked in the top 10 in pass offense five times and their average ranking was 17th. Their per-season average was 54 percent pass, 46 percent run.

This is a strange turn of events for a team that practically invented the pass in college football and made a name for itself by throwing the ball. The Cougars became Quarterback U. by mass-producing QBs — Gary Sheide, Gifford Nielsen, Marc Wilson, Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, Ty Detmer and Sarkisian. There were other good quarterbacks, but they were on the next tier or two and didn’t rule the air the way their predecessors did.

From 1973 to 1985, the Cougars ranked No. 1 in the nation in pass offense eight times and never ranked lower than eighth. Or, if you prefer a broader perspective, from 1973 through 1995, they ranked in the top 10 in pass offense 21 times and the top five 18 times. In the 20 years since then, they have cracked the top 10 only five times.

There was a reason they turned to the pass: It was futile to try to play smash-mouth football simply because they couldn’t sign the big, blue-chip recruits who could make it work. LaVell Edwards recognized this and decided the only way to win was with finesse — passing.

Just as importantly, he decided that if the Cougars were going to pass, they were going to commit to it fully. They would throw anytime, anywhere — first down, third down, goal line, short-yardage, deep in their own territory, whatever. After five years on the job, Edwards had his own recruits and committed to the pass. The Cougars went from irrelevant to a regular top 20 team, culminating in the national championship in 1984. The pass game, it turned out, was a perfect fit for the athletes they could recruit.

The Cougars have drifted away from their passing heritage over time. Maybe it was because they hit a rocky patch in the years after Edwards retired. Maybe they decided to be fashionable and embrace the spread running attack. Maybe it’s because quarterbacks don’t apprentice the way they once did; they’re thrown onto the field young and immature (see Jake Heaps, Hill, etc.), when BYU used to make them stand on the sidelines for years learning, among other things, to read defenses.

Whatever the reason, BYU has stopped being BYU. It’s difficult to know what the Cougars’ brand is anymore. It’s as if Taylor Swift decided to play heavy metal.

What does it all mean? Who knows. This is not the BYU your father grew up with, and maybe it doesn’t need to be, but teams do need an identity (and a conference affiliation would help, too).

They need a brand like the one that made them famous and feared.

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com