BYU's Ultimate Warriors

Total Blue Sports readers are aware that the football team engages in creative conditioning activities like Fun Fridays, Super Games, and the Elite Club lifting group. What TBS members do not know is what it takes for Cougar football players to become an Ultimate Warrior

Bronco Mendenhall and his staff have devised physical activities that try the hearts and minds of BYU's football athletes. Prior to spring camp, BYU's football team was divided by a mock draft in which team captains sat at a round table and selected their teams much like GM's in a war room on NFL draft day.

The teams faced off in double elimination round robin competition in activities such as dodge ball, water polo, grueling obstacle courses and weight room competitions. In the end, Team Jensen took first place in BYU's first ever "Super Games" competition.

To join BYU's "Elite Club," players must squat 500 pounds, bench press 400 pounds and clean 300 pounds. Offensive and defensive linemen make up most of the membership of this club.

One group stands above the rest, however, because it combines all of the physical aspects together with academics, citizenship and leadership. This select fraternity is called "The Ultimate Warriors." Of the 115 athletes on BYU's roster, only eight are members.

"We have a thing called, ‘The Ultimate Warrior' and there are eight members of that group right now," said BYU middle linebacker Markell Staffieri. "The ultimate warrior is someone who has his life in order in every aspect. It involves academics, your GPA, your community service hours and how you're giving back to the community, your lifting tests and how strong you are, your conditioning and how conditioned you are and also your commitment to the team. It also takes into account your attendance like your absences from the team. The criteria is set up according to your weight, and if you meet all those things then you're part of the club."

Linebacker Markell Staffieri just joined "The Ultimate Warrior" ranks with fellow linebacker Cameron Jensen.

"I've just became one," said Staffieri with a smile. "Cameron Jensen is one also and Bryan [Kehl] is right on the bubble. The ‘General' is probably my best friend on the team. He's the kind of guy you want walking next to you down a dark alley, and he's the kind of guy you want next to you on the field. Off the field, he the kind of guy you would want him to marry your sister. He's just an all around great guy.

"He brings enthusiasm, and leadership, not to mention what he brings on the field in terms of talent. One of the great things that makes him a great leader is he backs up all of his words. He's going to be the first one to stick his head into a pile, and then he's going to ask you to help him out."

Both Jensen and Staffieri reached the ultimate goals set by Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall and both started with the first team defense over spring camp. Fellow linebackers while Chris Bolden and David Nixon are still working towards achieving "Ultimate Warrior" status.

On the field, Staffieri sees what each player brings to the table in terms of physical abilities and talent. Some may not yet be Ultimate Warriors, but that does not mean that they will not make an impact on the field when the ball is snapped.

"Bryan just amazes me with his footwork," said Staffieri. "He is just so quick and there is going to be a big challenge across the country to stop him on the edge with his pass rush. He's just so quick and is always moving forward towards the quarterback and he is just so hard to stop because he's so fast. He's also a great cover guy down field too.

"I think David is going to be a lot like Bryan. From what I've seen his also quick and has great footwork. Also from what I've heard he's a hard nose player and will be able to create a lot defensive plays for us. I'm glad to have him back off his mission. Chris plays much the same way as Bryan and David. He's very intense and will hit you hard. He's definitely fast and covers a lot of ground in the passing game so that will be good."

Each one within this group of linebackers brings unique abilities to the field. They do not keep their trade secrets to themselves, however. There is free flow of information among teammates.

"There are times when you ask them, ‘Hey what do you do on this or that?' because maybe you're not quite sure on what to do," said Staffieri. "I also talk to Eddie Keele, because I have a great relationship with him, and ask him questions like if he's pulling what's the hardest move to protect against. We have that good of a relationship where he'll tell me some secrets and I'll tell him what linebackers try and do also. It's worked out well.

"I study Kehl for my blitzing technique and how I'm going to pass rush a running back. I study Cameron for how he takes on pulling guards and fullbacks. We all talk to each other and trade secrets and tips on how to make each other better players and make plays. I just try and help people learn the defense. I just try and lead by example and get better everyday. I haven't by any means reached the pinnacle of my career, so I'm just trying to improve every day."

With linebacker talent that runs three deep, there is talk among fans of rotating personnel during the game to keep them fresh. With Jensen, Staffieri, Nixon, Kehl, Bolden, Terrance Hooks, Aaron Singh, Kelly Poppinga, Gary Lovely and Aaron Wagner, the competition will be even more heated.

"There maybe some kind of rotation but I'm not sure," said Staffieri. "You would kind of think that because of all the talent we have at linebacker. I've always thought coming in that the linebacker rotation might happen but it will probably be like an 80-20 [ratio]. You're going to get your break in the game but your starting guys will get most of the playing time in the game. The fact that we can have guys come and step right in with little drop-off is the difference between great and mediocre programs. When the second team is just as good as the first it really shores up the defense a lot."

"We have a really talented linebacker group," said red shirt freshman linebacker Aaron Singh. "Our first, second and third team linebackers are very talented and the depth chart changes every day, so you just gotta play harder than the next person. If I was a starter I would trust anybody to play my position on the second or third team. That's how good we are"

Coach Mendenhall has no reservations about explaining why he gave up the 3-3-5 defense for the 3-4. He feels that the linebackers are his strongest defensive unit so using four instead of three of them will allow him to put his best players on the field. Staffieri gives some insight into how the linebackers have become more effective in the new 3-4-4 defense.

"Well I love the new defense," said Staffieri. "It's a lot of fun and it's going to help us out a lot at linebacker. We have a lot of talent at the linebacker position so why keep them on the sidelines when we can get as many as we can on the field. There is more freedom for Cameron and I, and we have more freedom to move to the ball much like you do playing when you're growing up.

"The 3-3-5 you pretty much have three linemen on the ball and three linebackers off the ball, and when you have five offensive linemen you have two free to come out on somebody. With the 3-4-4 you have three D-linemen up on the ball plus the two outside guys who come up on the ball, so that's five defensive guys the offensive linemen have to cover. That leaves Cameron and I more open and free to move around.

Mendenhall may have been the one to finalize a new defensive scheme, but it was his "Ultimate Warriors" who first put the idea on the table.

"I think it was a situation from last year that we kind of wanted to take upon ourselves," said Staffieri. "We knew we had the talent and were kind of bugging the coaches last year during different games to put a linebacker in there if we can't get it done because a linebacker can do it. I think Coach Mendenhall is a genius in recognizing that and changing things up for the best fit. We accept the role and do our best to execute it and make plays."

The guys manning the trenches in front of the linebackers may be smaller than Manaia Brown, Vince Feula and Daniel Marquardt from last year's squad, but their quickness and strength have helped to make up for their lack of size. The play of the defensive line is important because it allows the linebackers to roam the field.

"I think they are quicker but they're young," said Staffieri. "Jan [Jorgensen] is young, Kyle [Luekenga] is young and we have [Brett] Denney just off a mission, but those are guys that are going to put on weight over the summer and get even stronger. Kyle is already pretty much there.

"They're younger but they're tough guys. I know that they'll be tough in the trenches and they'll get stronger. Some of these guys have blown me away in the weight room. Kyle is an animal and so is Jan so I'm not even worried about their effort or strength."

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