PROVO — Like opening a gift a few days before Christmas, the 2011 football season came early for the BYU Cougars.
At least it seemed that way in their 52-24 thrashing of UTEP last Saturday in the fifth annual New Mexico Bowl. The Cougars, who embark on independence next fall, capped a winning season in 2010 with a 7-6 record.
It was a showcase of BYU's young talent as true freshman quarterback Jake Heaps threw four touchdown passes en route to the bowl's offensive MVP honors, with redshirt freshman wide receiver Cody Hoffman catching three of those TDs. Hoffman finished with eight receptions for 137 yards while another true freshman, running back Joshua Quezada, rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown.
If that's a sign of things to come, then ESPN, which signed an eight-year broadcast agreement with BYU, had to love the show the Cougars put on Saturday.
"You look at our team, I'm not sure if anyone would study the roster and look at the production and wouldn't be smiling about the future," said coach Bronco Mendenhall. "They're good players, but more importantly, they belong at BYU, and they're good kids."
If there's something Heaps, and BYU's other young players, have learned this season, it is that winning games doesn't come without diligent effort. After beating Washington in the season-opener, the Cougars lost four consecutive games, scoring a combined 53 points in those four defeats.
Senior safety Andrew Rich said the adversity his team faced early in the season taught the young players invaluable lessons. "I think starting 1-4 is the best thing that's happened to our program since I've been here," he said. That's because what followed was a remarkable turnaround as BYU won six of its final eight games.
Last October, after the Cougars' fourth straight loss, at Utah State, Mendenhall shook up his defensive staff, firing defensive coordinator Jaime Hill and shuffling other defensive assignments. Could there be a shakeup on the offensive staff during the offseason? Mendenhall, who said he will retain defensive coordinator duties next season, is in the process of evaluating the performance of his assistant coaches. If there are changes, they could come in the next few weeks.
Another thing to watch is the status of two-time first-team All-Mountain West Conference left tackle Matt Reynolds. Projected last spring to be a first-round NFL draft pick in 2011, Reynolds could decide to skip his senior year and turn pro.
Meanwhile, Mendenhall is looking forward to watching his young players continue to develop.
"When you add the players we redshirted with the majority of these guys coming back, I'm excited for our schedule next year and I'm excited for the future, mostly because now the younger players have seen how difficult it is to win games at the college level," he said. "They were recruited under the premise of, it's going to be (an) 11-2 (season) and that's without much extra effort on your part. This particular season now does a nice job of setting the baseline for what it's really going to take to even reach the level of success we did this year, knowing with more difficult opponents, to reach a higher level, this now becomes the starting point."
After going through growing pains, Heaps emerged as a playmaker and a leader.
"We're a young team and we have a bright future ahead of us, going independent and with the schedule that we have," said Heaps. "It's going to be a lot of fun. But at this point, I'm looking at it like we have a lot of work to do. I'm excited to get into the offseason and work with our guys, doing everything we can to be prepared for this next season. We have a lot of potential. It would be a shame to not reach it. We're going to work hard, that's for sure."
Heaps embodied the impressive improvement BYU's freshmen made. Through his first eight games of the season, he threw only two touchdown passes. In Heaps' final five games, he threw 13 TD passes and broke Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer's school record for touchdown passes in a season as a freshman with 15.
"At the beginning of the season, I couldn't throw a touchdown pass," Heaps said. "I wondered what was wrong with me. I never had that kind of problem before. As an offense, we really stepped it up. It showed (in the bowl game)."
"(Heaps) worked and worked and worked and our team worked and worked and worked," Rich said. "It wasn't something magical (that changed the way Heaps played). He worked his butt off to be productive. As a senior, to watch the young guys do stuff like that, it's very satisfying."
Though Rich's career is over, he knows BYU's future is in good hands.
"It's kind of funny. Our team is split in half, old and young," he said. "It's really rewarding to see the young guys be successful. I couldn't be more proud of those guys. They kind of got thrown into the fire at the very beginning. I know I couldn't have started a Division I football game as a freshman. There are athletes everywhere you look. The future's bright."