Cougar 'flag bearers'
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When Brigham Young University football coach Bronco Mendenhall took the reins of the program before the 2005 season, he created a mission statement.
That mission is "to be the flag bearers of Brigham Young University through football excellence, embracing truth, tradition, virtue and honor as a beacon to the world."
Coach Mendenhall has led the Cougars to an impressive 66-24 record in his seven seasons at the helm — and now the world is watching.
Last year, BYU embarked on its first season of independence, which means the Cougars have no conference affiliation, affording them freedom and flexibility in scheduling. Thanks to its exclusive deal with ESPN, millions of fans around the country and around the world can see BYU play.
ESPN and ESPN2 are available in 99 million homes, while ESPNU is distributed to approximately 73 million homes. BYUtv is available in more than 60 million North American homes.
"Everywhere that I go, including New Zealand, people say, 'We saw your game against Utah State,'" said Coach Mendenhall. "I can't go anywhere without people saying, 'It's so great to see the games.' The brand of BYU is good not only for the institution but also the Church. If I would have known the impact of exposure and could have made this choice when we joined the Mountain West Conference, I would have gone independent then. The value of exposure, I had no idea it would be like it is."
In 2011, 11 of the Cougars' 13 games were broadcast on the ESPN family of networks. This season, BYU's games will also be broadcast live on national television.
"Our friends and family from around the country and around the world can watch us play," said senior linebacker Brandon Ogletree. "That's pretty cool."
Consider this, too, when it comes to the program's impact worldwide — of the BYU football players expected to participate in 2012, 77 have served full-time, two-year missions in more than 30 different countries around the world. Another 38 are currently serving missions.
The Cougars open the 2012 season — their second as an independent — on Aug. 30 at home against Washington State. There are also games against the likes of Utah, Boise State, Hawaii, Utah State, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. The Cougars have signed a deal to play in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 20 against an opponent from the Mountain West Conference.
In future seasons, BYU has scheduled contests with teams like Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska and West Virginia.
This year, the Cougars will be led by senior quarterback Riley Nelson, who is surrounded by a host of talented and veteran players. He and his teammates are eager to compete and showcase their abilities.
"People love this program. They love BYU football," Nelson said. "We owe it to them to put the best product on the field. That's what I'm interested in — going out and giving it all we have on Saturdays and not having any regrets."
Nelson became the starting quarterback midway through last season, and guided the Cougars to a 6-1 record as a starter. He ended up completing 116-of-202 passes for 1,717 yards with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Nelson also rushed for 392 yards.
Coach Mendenhall said coaching Nelson is "an adventure. Riley is very strong-willed. He's very independent. He's very competitive. He is a risk taker. That's what makes him good. There's a delicate balance. You don't want him to be confined and restricted to play so tightly within the system that it takes away those things. You want to give him enough freedom, but not too much, to where he doesn't take the unnecessary chances. We are erring on the side of giving him more freedom than less. That seems to be how he plays best."
BYU also boasts a strong defense, with eight returning starters, including linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
"I think it will be the fastest defense that we've had," Ogletree said. "As a defense, I think we'll be faster and more experienced. Hopefully, we'll be better. I think we can be. I think we have a really good team and it will be fun to see what we can do on the field. We're prepared and working really hard. I think we have the right group of guys to accomplish our goals. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Senior defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna is looking to close out his career in memorable fashion.
"What motivates me most is that it's my last year. I want to go out with a bang," he said. "I want to go all out and give all of my effort and improve from last year. My family and faith motivate me. The teams we're playing against motivate me. We have a tough schedule. Playing games against Boise State and Notre Dame excite me. I always think about those games."