Despite Downturn, Dark Days to Dissipate for BYU

With BYU's young freshmen talent undergoing on-the-field baptism by fire and adversity on both sides of the ball, the Cougars' senior middle linebacker feels like the guest of honor who showed up for the Grand Ball a few years too late.

"We're just getting into the mix of the best stuff. I'm leaving when everything is getting good," said Mike Tanner. "Sure, the offense is young but they are progressing every week. They're getting better. People may not see the little things they are doing better, but man, they're getting better and defensively we're getting better.

"I think it's only uphill from here whether we have one or two more losses – or no losses from here. I guarantee this program is only going up from here. These freshmen are playing in the games. They're getting game experience. They're young in experience and we are barely at the tip of what coaches really have in back of their minds," the senior team leader explained.

On the heels of back-to-back losses against Air Force and Stanford –first time in 10 years the Cougars have lost consecutive home games –Tanner commented yesterday on the pressure from within and without the program.

"There's a lot of pressure," said Tanner. "Gosh, people have no idea. When you're on the outside looking in as a BYU fan, which I've been, it's amazing to see. People say, ‘Oh, they need to do this or they need to do that.' You always think you have the answer, but when you're on the inside looking out – and you're doing every freaking thing you can, you go back and look at film and you think, ‘Dang, if I eliminate this mistake and that mistake, then we're fine. Then people would have nothing to criticize about."

Tanner and fellow teammates remain steadfastly optimistic about this Cougars team. "Wait and see how good these guys are going to be, even at the end of this year. Every game these guys are getting more experience and a better feel on how to do everything in the game. I just think people are up and down when it comes to the scoreboard and that's the ultimate end. These guys are getting better and better and they are going to be a good team."

With intangibles that cannot be substituted by talent alone, Tanner added there is much more to the experience factor than meets the fans' eye.

"It makes a huge difference," he continued. "People don't understand that when you've been in a game, you get the feel for the speed of the game. These freshmen come out here and practice and make good plays. Then they get in a game and everything changes.

"The speed of the game is different. The look of the game is different. The way everything happens is different – the blocks, how good the blockers are, how good the defensive linemen in front of them are. People have no idea what it's like to have experience in dealing with all these different things."

Rather than feel any discouragement and disappointment at the rookie mistakes of his freshmen teammates, Tanner raved about their rare experience and talent.

"If I was a freshman and could have that opportunity (they have) … Wow, what can something like that do for you in the future. Take John Beck, for example," Tanner continued. "He's out here practicing, making great plays and doing a lot of great things on the practice field. But as he gets more in the game, he's going to feel calmer and see a guy open to make the play instead of getting a little jumpy. If you can get a nose for the ball or a quarterback that has eyes for the field, and things like that, I think it's far more important than someone who runs a fast forty, but if you can get a guy that can do both then …"

Thinking back on what it would have been like for him to play as a freshman with the rigorous demands and pressures of this year's early season schedule, Tanner shook his head, knowing boos would be aimed at him instead. Like his head coach, he was emphatic this team will be special if Cougar faithful remain patient.

"It would be night and day for me, especially with the different defenses. The good thing for me, being a senior, is I get to see what it was like (as a freshman) versus what it is now. If I were to come in as a freshman, and see what there is now (in the football program), I wish I had more time (years left to play) for the simple fact that I know how good these freshmen are going to be."

Tanner said he would gladly take the lumps and bumps for a chance to be part of what he is convinced will be a star-studded BYU team in the near future.

"If I was a freshman, I would be so excited because I would know what I have to look forward to in the future. It's hard as a senior because we've struggled a little bit (this year). I want nothing but to win. I hate to lose, not only as a player, but as a fan. I'll always be a fan. There's so much to look forward to – not only from next week on, but forever as long as coach Mendenhall is a part of this defense and coach Crowton."

Cougar faithful have turned crimson red with frustration and disappointment over the Cougar's 2-3 season record, particularly after last year's dismal 5-7 record.

BYU head coach Gary Crowton has repeatedly stated the team is growing and improving despite two frustrating losses at home. He urged patience while he and the Cougar players continue to mold talented, inexperienced young players quickly into formidable veterans.

"People want to win. I know how it works. BYU is used to winning. I know how it works," said Crowton. "We're playing young players and that means they are better than the old players if there were any there. That means the future is very bright. They're good players that we are bringing in, but we're playing a lot of (young) people," Crowton explained.

BYU's offense has been particularly impacted by the injury bug, with at least six offensive starters already missing games this year. Coupled with the fact that the Cougar offensive line starts two freshmen with another getting significant snaps adds to its offensive challenges. In addition, at least four true freshmen are seeing reps defensively as well in critical downs.

Crowton said yesterday, "People are going to have to be patient. I believe in our team and I believe in what we are doing. The problem with our players is a lack of experience. I mean, think about it, just get realistic. Lack of experience on offense is the problem with our offense, period. End of story."

In the world of fast food, automated car washes and round-the-clock real time news, patience is hard to come by when a freshman quarterback, behind a youthful offensive line, is asked to run BYU's offense back to its glory days of old.

So what really is more important, experience or talent? According to Crowton, the talent is there, but they need the experience.

"In the beginning, experience does have more importance, but I think as a talented person gains experience, he will eventually surpass the less talented but more experienced person. There's a lot of guys that have a lot of experience, but don't have the talent."

Meanwhile, linebacker Mike Tanner knows firsthand what is on the near horizon with BYU football, wishing only he could be around and be a part of it.

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