Bronco Mendenhall's obsession with "grit and determination" has come back to haunt him in 2012. Bronco has been hopelessly devoted to "grit" from the beginning of his coaching career and that devotion, for the most part, has served BYU well. But in 2012, Bronco and offensive coordinator Brandon Doman decided to bet the farm on the ultimate gritty player, Riley Nelson. That bet has backfired and now BYU must scramble to salvage the 2012 season.
"Gritty" is code for under-sized and physically under-talented. Riley Nelson has the heart of a lion but the body of a slow-ish slot receiver. The healthy Nelson has delivered some impressive and memorable performances for BYU. But with his physical limitations and immense self confidence Nelson has not stayed healthy for any long stretches in his BYU career. The same gritty behavior that endears Nelson to coaches and team mates has allowed 300 pound men to crush him on a regular basis.
Such has been the case in the 2012 season. Nelson tried one too many quarterback scrambles and suffered a reportedly-serious back injury in the process. Brandon Doman called the back injury "bad" and unconfirmed whispers have been floating around the internet that it might be either chipped or cracked vertebrae. Whatever the case, Nelson is injured and was in no shape to lead BYU's offense to victory against Utah or Boise State.
Yet, Bronco and Doman decided to bet everything on their gritty, badly injured quarterback anyway. Maybe coaches didn't know the seriousness of the injury. Maybe Nelson is an even better actor than he is a football player. I suspect it might be that Bronco deeply wanted to believe that "grit" could overcome injury in the end. But, unsurprisingly, it didn't. The injured Nelson's performance against Utah was sub-par and his turnovers were enough to make the difference in that game. And while Nelson almost brought BYU back in the Utah game a missed field goal attempt derailed that comeback. In the Boise game Nelson's performance was vastly worse.
The most shocking thing about the Boise State game was how long it took Doman and Bronco to admit they were wrong to bet everything on the injured Nelson and finally replace him with the healthy Taysom Hill. Was it stubbornness or just way too much faith in "grit"? Probably some of both. But that failure to change and adjust in game was an egregious coaching error that was plain for all of Cougar Nation to see.
I am a big fan of Bronco Mendenhall. I am not at all calling for his head here. But this obsession for grit is not helping BYU right now. And while steadfastness in a coach might be a virtue, stubbornness and inflexibility are vices. I recently defended Bronco, citing his willingness to change and learn. Now would be a good time for Bronco and Doman to change and learn. My recommendations are these:
1) Stop worshiping grit. It is only one of many useful characteristics in a football players. Health and physical ability are also very useful.
2) Be more flexible and willing to change in the middle of games. Useful halftime adjustments are a hallmark of great teams and great coaches.
I hope Riley gets 100% healthy again. I wouldn't mind him starting again in a month or so if he really does heal up completely. In the meantime, I hope BYU is feverishly working to get Taysom Hill up to speed on more of the BYU playbook. He needs to get used to passing for 300+ yards quickly if BYU hopes to beat the likes of Utah State, Oregon State, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech later this season.
Oh, and Go Cougs!