PROVO — Call it two diverse football philosophies converging at BYU — one by choice, the other by necessity.

Bronco Mendenhall's eye for player effort hasn't changed over the years. Once again he is plugging in players from nowhere into BYU's 3-3-5 defense. And it appears to be working. At last count, 11 of 22 defensive players used in Saturday's win over Air Force were non-scholarship players or former walk-on athletes.

But the young, intense and innovative defensive coordinator's understanding of what makes BYU's coaching job unique has evolved after two seasons in Provo. He understands the challenge of coaching players bound for church service, even if it doesn't fit football science.

The reason? Priorities.

Although Mendenhall is LDS and has lived much of his life in Utah, he continues to be amazed at the model BYU football works with — that freshman stars like Dennis Pitta (tight end) and possibly Austin Collie (wide receiver) and his own players, Matt Bauman and Matt Ah You, will just disappear for two years in a few months.

And football work goes on.

Last spring, after earning a starting safety spot, freshman Kellen Fowler walked into Mendenhall's office and said he had accepted a call to serve a mission to Alaska. Before that, it was starting freshman linebacker David Nixon, just months before. Welcome to BYU, Mendenhall thought, as he scratched his head and looked up at his depth chart.

He'd already lost senior James Allen and Tennessee transfer Shannon Benton to suspensions, both penciled in as starters. Fowler's decision just made it more complex.

Had Mendenhall been at Oregon State or New Mexico, he would have been upset — even mad.

"I would have questioned their commitment to play football and their commitment to the program and their loyalty," Mendenhall said. "I would have had a problem with it. It's not Oregon State or New Mexico by any stretch of imagination. I think it is one of the unique privileges of this university and something we do. I'm getting to understand it. Although I grew up here, I didn't understand the impact that this had in football.

"I'm attempting to coach them in a way that will prepare them to be the best missionaries they can be. I think I can help them prepare. I expect them to be leaders in their missions, to carry the same work ethic there as they've learned here so they will be leaders in a more important work there than here.

"So, when I talk to myself for my motives in coaching and what I do, it fits in to what I'm doing here. My hope is that they represent this university, the church, themselves and the defense in a positive way. I'm not saying they get out there and run door-to-door, but they work hard."

Mendenhall is seeing this even more clearly today.

The past two games, he's started Bauman, a freshman walk-on from Skyline High, at linebacker. Against Air Force, one of the nation's top rushing teams that deploys a sophisticated option attack, Bauman led the Cougars in tackles (10). The Falcons gained 232 yards rushing.

Of the 232 Air Force yards, 42 came on one fourth-quarter play when Mendenhall says his defenders failed "to pinch" the middle of the line for one of the only few times that day. It was Air Force's worst rushing effort since gaining 182 against nationally ranked California.

But back to Bauman.

He's headed for Pennsylvania and a two-year mission in January — another lifelong dream. On Saturday, he played in place of JC transfer Justin Luettgerodt, one of BYU's most heralded recruits signed last February.

All Mendenhall's investment in Bauman will be placed in escrow in 2005. Mendenhall, then, cannot get to the deposit. And just last week Mendenhall said he would recommend to head coach Gary Crowton that Bauman be given a scholarship. But even that move, if approved, couldn't happen until 2006 upon Bauman's return.

The other day, Mendenhall stood beside a team bus as players headed for a movie theater leading up to the game against Wyoming at home.

He watched as Bauman, Ah You and other missionary candidates filed by along with a bevy of walk-ons, many of whom Mendenhall has plugged into his defense this year.

With Bauman, the walk-ons or former walk-ons who are playing right now include Spencer White (safety), Jon Burbidge (safety), Micah Alba (corner), Hala Paongo (nose tackle), Kayle Buchanan (corner), Ryan Beck (safety), Dan Bates (linebacker), Sosiua Sekona (linebacker, special teams and travel squad) and Justin Carlson-Maddux (tackle).

Mendenhall tries to keep a distance between himself and his players, although he admitted he did get an e-mail from Fowler last week from his mission in Alaska. There are also other communications with missionaries during the period of their service, just to keep up.

"I'm not close with my players when working with them," he said. "There's a separation. It's a more effective teaching climate for me to handle it that way."

"One of the things I can do best is to let them work and I work. When they come back (from missions) it's at a different level from when they left."

Bauman will learn this if he hasn't already. Bauman, who is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, is a Mendenhall-type player. At least that is what Skyline coach Roger Dupaix told Mendenhall last spring during recruiting evaluations of high school players.

At that point, BYU didn't have a scholarship available but invited Bauman to walk on with preferred status after Dupaix informed BYU coaches Bauman would accept that role. "I didn't really noticed Matt at all until the second week of camp," Mendenhall said.

"Matt runs well, tries hard, is disciplined and works hard. He was everything coach Dupaix said he was. He said this was your kind of guy — whatever that means. And he was right."

Mendenhall accepts Bauman's departure in a few months as business at BYU. He also points to Bauman as an example to other high school players who want to play major college football. "It's a great message to anyone who wants to play here. If you try hard and know what to do, no matter where you come from — scholarship or not — you can have success in this game."

This time next year, the closest Bauman will get to BYU football is when the Cougars travel to South Bend to play Notre Dame and then when they return back east to play at Boston College while he's knocking on doors in Pennsylvania.

Mendenhall understands. He buys it, now that he's seen the goods.


E-mail: dharmon@desnews.com