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By The Numbers: Can Nick Howell lead the BYU defense?

Evaluating criticism of BYU defensive coordinator Nick Howell. The numbers may surprise you.


Before the season began, I, like every other fan was concerned about Bronco Mendenhall handing over the defensive play calling reins to Nick Howell.  BYU had been down that road before in 2010 and it wasn't pretty.  It led to a mid-season firing of Jaime Hill and Bronco taking back the responsibilities as defensive coordinator.

Six games into the season, and a segment of fans are clamoring for Bronco to "Jaime Hill" Nick Howell.

What are the claims against Nick Howell's defense, and are those claims merited?

Claim:  BYU puts zero pressure in the backfield.  Opposing quarterbacks have enough time to search, ponder, and pray about where to throw the football.  The defensive line is losing the battle at the line of scrimmage.  The linebackers aren't playmakers.

Let's take a look at the numbers.  I am going to include the 2010 defensive numbers to illustrate how Jaime Hill's group was doing in comparison.  Through six games in 2010 includes five games of Jaime Hill and one game with Bronco Mendenhall in charge of the defense.  I also am including last year's defense as the personnel will have some overlap, although the 2013 group had the benefit of Kyle Van Noy, Spencer Hadley, Daniel Sorensen, and Eathyn Manumaleuna, who have all earned an NFL check this season.

Through 6 games Sacks Tackles for Loss Total Yards Lost
2014 Defense 12 36 167
2013 Defense 10 34 191
2010 Defense 6 20 121

In fact, the 2014 is right in the middle of the pack (5th of 10) in defensive sacks+TFL totals in the Bronco Era, through six games.  For reference, Jaime Hill's group is 10th of 10.

Has there been time for opposing QBs?  Sure there has.  But this group is right in line with what an average Bronco defense does.

As for having a playmaker, until Alani Fua was injured, he was having a similarly productive season stats-wise than 2013 Kyle Van Noy.  Through five games in their respective seasons, Fua had 20 solo tackles, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss. KVN had 18 solo tackles, one sack, 6.5 tackles.  Losing Fua is a blow, but Sione Takitaki looks as if he's ready to step up an fill in that OLB playmaking role with his two sacks and forced fumble against UCF.

Claim:  Nick Howell's D is playing soft on critical downs.  The opponents convert every 3rd down, even 3rd and long.  Beyond that, they are playing "Olé" defense in the redzone.

Ready for some confusing numbers?  BYU's 3rd down defense performed better in losses against Utah State and UCF then it did in victories against Houston, UCONN, or Virginia.  Here is some more confusion.

Through 6 games 3rd Down Conversion Opponents 1st Downs Red Zone Defensive Efficiency
2014 Defense 37/101 36.3% 135 18/23 13 TD, 5 FG
2013 Defense 38/113 33.6% 104 13/16 10 TD, 3 FG
2010 Defense 44/92 47.8% 115 19/21 15 TD, 4 FG

First downs are the eye popping thing here. 20 of BYU's opponents first downs this season have come by penalty.  That means that BYU is giving a fresh set of downs to its opponents better than three times per game!  Over the past 6 seasons, BYU defenses have given a 1st down through penalty just slightly under 24 times per season.  The Cougars are four away from passing the average in just half a season.  Think about how many opponents drives that have been saved by penalties.  The Cougars are killing off 36 percent of all 3rd downs and 36.5 percent of all opponents drives have begun within their own 20 or worst (good for 2nd nationally, and thank you Scott Arellano).  With that being that case, how on earth have opponents reached the red zone 23 times?  Penalties.

It is fair to hold Howell accountable for the discipline of his defense.  The 20 1st downs given to opponents this season is the 2nd most of any team in college football.  Penalties are the main difference between his and any of the BYU defenses in the past 10 years.

Holding opponents to a field goal or no points in the red zone is a win for a defense.  In that respect, Nick Howell's defense has won 10 of 23 (43.5 percent) red zone encounters which is comfortably the best of the three units investigated above.  In the two losses, Utah State and UCF went 6/7 in the red zone resulting in six TDs.  In the four victories, opponents made 16 trips to the red zone with 12 scores for seven TDs and five FGs.  It is clear that forcing field goals or turnovers in the red zone has been a key component in BYU wins this season as they have had better than two defensive red zone wins in victories.

Claim: This season's defense doesn't make big plays.

Through 6 games Fumbles Gained Interceptions Gained Turnovers Gained
2014 Defense 8 5 13
2013 Defense 4 4 8
2010 Defense 3 3 6

Once again, Howell D is out producing the pined-for Bronco D with its four NFL caliber players and isn't even close to Jaime Hill range.

Claim:  Nick Howell doesn't have that special knack and quality that Bronco has to call the right call at the right time to keep points off the board.

Through 6 games Scoring Defense
2014 Defense 23.5
2013 Defense 17.3
2010 Defense 27.5

Nick Howell's defense has surrendered over 30 points in three straight games.  The last time a BYU defense gave up 30+ in three straight games was 2008.  That was the only time it happened with Bronco as the play caller since he arrived as defensive coordinator in 2003.

Bronco has years of experience as a defensive play caller.  Of course Mendenhall is better at it than Nick Howell. But don't forget that in his 1st year calling the defense at BYU his defenses gave up totals of 33, 35, 38, 50, and 58 points.  There are growing pains.

To this point, I've only taken a look at Nick Howell's performance on the field, but maybe those metrics are secondary to what is of real importance in this conversation.

The question of substance here is about Mendenhall, not Nick Howell.

Is the program is better served long term by having Bronco Mendenhall take on two jobs as both head coach and defensive coordinator or by having him focus his efforts solely on being the head coach?

It should be abundantly obvious that doing two jobs is more taxing than one.  The 8.5 seasons Bronco has put in doing two jobs have been hallmarked by greater success early on and diminishing returns over the past four seasons. The time required, pressure and fatigue have certainly caused career wear and tear on Mendenhall.  It can't be easy to grind away at two high pressure jobs.

It is even tougher to be very successful at both jobs.  Bronco has to outwit, outwork, and outcoach BOTH Kyle Whittingham and Kalani Sitake, for example.  His one mind must make up as much intensity, thought, effort, and creativity as both men on the opposing sideline.  No wonder he has stated that he doesn't want to coach at BYU for 30 years and would rather be surfing.  No small wonder that Bronco has twice now tried to go away from working two jobs.

Have we, as fans, taken the time to adequately realize the level of difficulty Bronco has taken on?  Despite how difficult his task has been, Bronco Mendenhall has achieved a 81-30 record when serving as both head coach and defensive coordinator.  The guy is brilliant and a workaholic.  He has to be.  There isn't another way to beat two people 81 times by yourself.

Should the BYU football program continue to burn both sides of the candle on this brilliant workaholic?  I'll let that debate take place elsewhere.

Regardless, it obviously isn't a sustainable solution for Bronco Mendenhall to continue working two of the three biggest jobs in the BYU Football program.

Nick Howell shows promise.  His players play hard for him.  His defense measures up just fine with a Bronco D. He will get better at the craft of preventing points, and even then, he is only a couple points higher than a typical Bronco D. And for heaven's sakes he is nowhere near Jaime Hill.  So, show me that smile again, don't waste another minute on your crying and appreciate that there are growing pains.