On the defensive line, the three that are assigned to the front line of defense also have gone through various changes that have allowed them to become more successful, both individually and as a unit. Junior defensive end Brett Denney is one such player that has made changes to improve his game.
"When I got home from my mission, I realized I needed to better establish my run defense," said Denney. "For myself, I needed to be a better run stopper."
With Denney coming in at about 6 feet 5 inches and 260 pounds, his physique is more like that of a tight end or a defensive end in a four-down system. Playing inside on a three-down line may prove to be somewhat of a disadvantage to Denney.
"In a three-down front I don't necessarily have the body type," Denney said. "You could say a way for me to fix that is to put on more weight so I can be a big body to help plug up those holes, and there were times where I questioned if I even fit into this type of defense."
Denney's physical abilities were better suited to play as a pass rusher on the outside edge in a four-down linemen system. His abilities to match up with an offensive tackle one-on-one, where he could use his speed and athleticism more, were his specialty. While playing inside he had to broaden his abilities and learn new ways to be effective given the disadvantages placed before him.
"I really didn't have the chance to play my first year because I had to learn how to play within the system," said Denney. "I had to learn how to have the right pad level because I'm no longer pass rushing from the outside. I had to learn how to have different footwork, and it's still hard. Coach Kaufusi tells us the same things over and over again on how to be successful within this system, so during my sophomore year I worked on those things and got better and better."
Accompanying the technique necessary to play inside with his own natural abilities, Denney has been able to see more of the playing field as a junior. But while his run defense has improved, Denney feels another aspect of his game has been neglected.
"I think I got a lot better at the run defense, but I think my pass rush got put on the back burner," said Denney. "I was just focusing so much on trying to develop my game to better defend the rush that my pass rush kind of fell by the way side. I don't feel like it is where it was in years past, so now the focus is to try to develop that side while maintaining my run stopping abilities to become more of a complete defensive lineman."
Coach Mendenhall's defense places a priority on first and foremost stopping the other team's running game.
"Being a defensive end, all I thought I needed was a pass rush, but in this program we focus first on stopping the run and then the pass rush," said Denney. "Most teams in our conference, believe it or not, want to come out and establish the run first, then the pass. What it comes down to is if you don't stop the run, then you won't have the chance to pass rush. It goes hand in hand. You have to first stop the run to force your opponent into a passing game so you have the chance to pass rush."
So what are some of the techniques that make a defensive lineman more effective?
"You have to have good pad level and stay low, which is kind of hard for a guy that's 6'5"," Denney said. "I had to definitely work on that. Another thing is how to use your hands. You have to get your hands inside on the other guy … You have to take the proper steps. If you have your feet in the right place you can have a good anchor and stay strong even if you only weigh 200 pounds. If you don't have your feet in the right place you'll get your feet all crossed over and you'll get knocked around. You just have to make sure you have a good base, use your hands on the inside and have good feet while staying low."
Playing with discipline is key to success in BYU's 3-4-4 scheme.
"Playing successfully within the scheme is key to the kinds of plays we run," Denney said. "It kind of goes hand in hand. Every time we'll have a gap that we are responsible for on a play, and if guys are in the right place at the right time, then the play isn't going to work. That's when guys get into trouble and we have a breakdown up front. Sometimes you'll get guys trying to do too much and they're outside their assignment.
"For example, sometimes I get inside a guy in my gap to stop the run and then leave my gap because I think a running back is going to the outside, so I leave my gap thinking he's going to the outside. Then he cuts back inside and hits the gap I was supposed to defend. You have to learn that the defense doesn't revolve around just one person, and you can't be selfish. You have to learn that sometimes you aren't the one that has to make the play, but [you are the one that has to] set it up for your teammates to make the play. So sometimes we're doing things up front that allow the linebackers scrapping from behind to come up and make the play because we've done our job up front successfully. You have to learn to trust and play within a system in order for it to work as a whole."
Denney said there are other things he has to change in his mentality when playing in BYU's system.
"One thing about a three-man front is we aren't as wide as a four-man front," Denney said. "Usually the defensive ends are outside the offensive tackles about a yard and a half or two yards, so you have to learn to work moves from a head up position rather than from an outside position. It's just another mindset that you have to change. I had to change my mentality and learn to work within the two systems given my body type."
Denney admits that he also had to be more confident about playing on the defensive line.
"I think I learned a lot of that from Jan [Jorgensen], who also isn't the best body type for this system. He's showing that he can be, and I think that's the mentality that I've had to have. You have to change your mentality and find ways to make what you have successful within the systems. I don't think it was a huge thing for me, but it was something that I definitely had in the back of my mind. If you're wasting all of your time thinking of excuses, then you're not going to develop, learn, progress or fix the things needed for success."
Denney recalls the examples given to him by his brother John Denney, who played with Jason Taylor on the Miami Dolphins. Taylor, who almost quit football prior to his Defensive Player of the Year performance, played a hybrid defensive end and linebacker position while weighing only 255 pounds.
"[John] said that Jason Taylor wasn't that big of a guy," said Denney. "He said he wasn't a guy that was 280 pounds and wasn't a big guy. John said he's a guy that just gets the job done, so there are guys that are all different sizes that get the job done. It's first starts with a mentality."
Brett Denney receives extra coaching from time to time from his NFL brothers, who still follow the Cougars and their younger sibling closely. When he makes a mistake, he hears all about it, and the same goes for when he does something right.
"With the amount of experience they have, it's so simple to them," said Denney. "I can go to a high school game and tell a kid you're not doing this right or that right because it's so simple. I'm telling a kid what my coach was telling me five years ago. In high school I could just rush the outside and get a sack. Here at the college level at BYU, I tried to do that and was on my back every play. Then I started to realize, oh that's why you stay low, that's why you have to have good extension and that's why you have to have all these things. It just made sense to me then.
"So my brother does the same thing to me having played at the higher level. He's always [asking] me why am I not doing this or that. He's always telling me to get better extension or to use my hands more. Sometimes he'll send me a text message during halftime in a game. Sometimes I don't get them, but I always look at them after the game and see what he says, and he's not afraid to hurt my feeling or tell me what I'm doing right or wrong. It's good to have someone just looking at you to help give you some extra coaching tips and to tell you what you need to do to be more successful."