Soon after rumors to this effect surfaced from a purported team meeting Monday, BYU made official Wednesday that Bronco Mendenhall will retake the reins as acting defensive coordinator for the Cougars in 2015.
The press release avoids calling Mendenhall the defensive coordinator because Nick Howell is still the defensive coordinator. But there's nothing to announce unless Bronco is taking over again, which is explained in this paragraph:
With Mendenhall's return to the defense, the structure and resources of the defensive staff will mirror that of the 2013 season. BYU's offensive staff will continue in their current responsibilities in 2015.
The parlance is a little odd, and reflects direct input from Bronco no doubt, but what we essentially learn is that more than just calling plays, Mendenhall is returning to his role as the top defensive coach and will be leading the defense directly.
Mendenhall's official comment on the matter, as found in the release:
"I believe returning to my prior responsibilities directly overseeing the defense gives our team the best chance to achieve the results we want on the field."
This signals several things about BYU as the Cougars lay the groundwork for what sets up to be a potentially exciting 2015 season.
1. BYU again has an elite defensive coordinator
I know it drives some fans nuts when this is brought up, but really, Bronco Mendenhall is an elite defensive coach. "Didn't Bronco call plays when BYU gave up 55 points to Boise State?" you might ask. Yes, he did. But this isn't just about playcalling. This means taking direct charge of the defense in all phases: preparation, scheme, daily coaching, and playcalling.
If asked to name the head coaches who consistently help lead the nation's best defenses, most college football fans nationally who are more than just casual fans would give you a short list of names that would almost always include Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, and Mark Dantonio. Well, consider:
In Bronco's last 3 seasons as def play-caller ('11-'13), BYU was one of only 4 teams ranked top 25 in PPG allowed/YPP allowed in all 3 yrs.— Greg Wrubell (@gregwrubell) January 7, 2015
BYU was joined in the top 25 in PPG allowed and YPP allowed (2011 through 2013) by Alabama, Florida State and Michigan State.— Greg Wrubell (@gregwrubell) January 7, 2015
We may need to call in the Joe Flacco pundits, but I'd call that #elite. Being a top-ranked defense in both points per game and yards per play is clearly not something just any defense is doing.
2014 was rough on BYU's defense. A rookie playcaller and the loss of three starting linebackers who all played snaps in the NFL this season (Kyle Van Noy, Uani Unga, Spencer Hadley) maybe says we should have seen it coming. But Bronco has a track record and expects better of defenses he coaches.
2. Bronco is comfortable with Robert Anae and the offense
The 2013 season was odd to see, offensively. Taysom Hill is the football equivalent of a Lamborghini, but mashing the pedal into the floor as your sole racing technique is going to produce pretty poor results. That's what we saw in 2013: a frenetically-paced, underachieving offense.
So Bronco stepped in to help adjust Anae 2.0's take on offense to fit BYU's personnel. (This wasn't the only reason Bronco gave up the reins to the defense, mind you. He desired a more overall general-manager-type role to the team and wanted to relieve himself of the stress it took to wear two of a team's three main coaching hats out of head coach, O-coordinator, and D-coordinator.)
The results were good. Anae found a groove with Taysom Hill that saw BYU put a thorough second-half beatdown on Texas. Against Virginia, when the defense couldn't get off the field, the offense put together an amazing performance, scoring 34 points on only 60 snaps (subtracting the kickoff return for a touchdown) and finding a way to claim the win despite never having the ball (Virginia ran more than 100 plays).
When Christian Stewart took over for the injured Hill, immediate results were mixed, but the season ended with the offense outdueling Cal and then dropping 48 points on the 23rd-best defense in the country (Memphis's S&P+ rank).
Let's not forget that in Anae's first tenure at BYU, the Cougars' offense ranked in the top 18 in the country (advanced stats again) in five of his six seasons -- and three of those were top-8 performances.
This season, BYU finished ranked 38th in S&P+ despite losing the nation's most dynamic QB and the running back that was well on pace to track down the school's all-time rushing record. That still ranks better than both of the seasons in between Anae's time as OC (55 and 44).
Dr. Anae is a very good offensive coordinator. While I sometimes moan about his playcalling like the rest of all college football fans do with their OCs, the results speak for themselves.
3. Nick Howell wasn't ready
This may seem like a Captain Obvious item, or perhaps one meant to pile on. I'm not talking necessarily about results, but something in the process during the 2014 season showed Bronco that Howell wasn't ready. There would be no reason for Coach The-Scheme-Is-Phenomenal (also read: Our Processes Are Phenomenal) to step in if Howell was adequately installing/coaching/executing that scheme and correctly administering the processes. Bronco would let Howell continue to administer that scheme and results would improve.
Because let's face it: As harsh as Bronco's statement about the scheme was, and how he probably unintentionally pointed the finger at his players, he's still right. He's proven that his scheme is pretty phenomenal (as exhibited earlier).
But since we've gone back to the 2013 staff structure with Howell as DC in name and Bronco running the show, there was something in the processes Howell wasn't doing. What that was, I couldn't even begin to speculate. But the timing wasn't right for the premature handoff that occurred.
4. The 2015 season may be the culmination of Bronco's career
This last item is a ton more speculative than the rest, but there is some cognitive dissonance to address in this move. The two conflicting ideas are: 1) Bronco Mendenhall is greatly taxed physically and emotionally by running the defense directly while also being head coach, and attempted to move away from that structure twice because of it; and 2) Bronco Mendenhall just took back the defense anyway.
Maybe I'm reading too much into it. But 2015 will be Bronco's 11th season as head coach. In the current college football climate, that's rather a long time.
I could attempt to spend a lot of words on the thought, but perhaps nobody can adequately coach Bronco's overall defensive program except Bronco himself. Two attempted handoffs to successors ultimately failed. But we know he does not desire to be both head coach and defensive coordinator permanently.
Combine those two things, and you might have a decision: Do I give it one more go as head coach and defensive coordinator and let the chips fall? Or do I realize I will never be able to hand off the defense to my liking, and hang it up?
This isn't all happening in a vacuum, either. BYU has just recorded a third consecutive 8-5 record and Mendenhall has two years left on his contract. As I detailed earlier this season, this is falling short of what I called The Bronco Standard. This is the standard Bronco has stated the program should achieve in any given year -- 10 wins, top-25 finish, and a bowl win.
In the last three seasons, BYU has earned just 1 of a possible 9 points in the Bronco Standard. A record of 24-15 is far from terrible, but it's been a very uninspiring run and falls very short of the coach's stated standard.
That leads into 2015, which features a senior duo of Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams. It features games against Nebraska, Michigan, UCLA, and Missouri. It marks a big opportunity for the program. So a coach who has repeatedly tried to give back the defense and stated how much wear and tear it takes to have it back, has just taken it back. He's entering what could be a big year for BYU on the tail of three-straight 8-5 seasons.
My personal attempt at reading between the lines gives me this: 2015 is a last stand for Bronco Mendenhall.
Perhaps he thinks another 8-5 season would lead to his dismissal. He probably knows much will be expected with the caliber of seniors like Hill and Williams. It should be a banner year for the Cougars.
If it is a banner year, Bronco realizes A) He loves coaching and he's pretty good at it after all, wants to continue leading BYU, and he signs a contract extension; or B) That it took a ton of energy, he's exhausted, and he misses his family, and he hangs it up in peace, having finally led BYU through the wilderness of independence to a banner season. (Or alternatively, C) He's already indicated he will not sign a contract extension and has simply agreed to run the defense for two more years [if 2015 is successful] before he hangs it up.)
If it isn't a banner year and gives us more of the same, it's entirely possible Tom Holmoe and Bronco sit down to figure a buyout for his final year, because A) Bronco feels like his voice is no longer influential and he realizes despite his best efforts and exhausting all his energy, he just doesn't have what it takes to win 10 games anymore; or B) Because Holmoe decides that for him.
In all those scenarios, 2015 becomes quite important.
Perhaps I'm painting too much of an ultimatum scenario. Maybe there is no more forethought into future ramifications for this move, and Bronco's only thought is, "Wow, that defense was not good enough and I must fix it to win games in 2015."
But at some point, the Bronco Era will end. Perhaps this is its culmination.