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BYU ready for risk, rewards of independence

As a surfer, BYU football coach Bronco Mendenhall knows plenty about risk and reward, from riding that perfect wave to experiencing a major wipeout.

Soon he'll see how his team handles the concept as it embarks on its first season as an independent.

Start with a baptism by fire with opening games on the road against Ole Miss (Sept. 3) and Texas, followed by a Week 3 showdown at home with instate rival Utah, which also has plenty to prove after jumping to the Pac-12 Conference.

After that the Cougars face Central Florida, one of the favorites to win the Conference-USA title, followed by October road games against Oregon State and TCU.

"We didn't go independent to be safe," Mendenhall said of the tough early schedule. "We went independent to move the program into a new era, so I'm excited for the challenge and hopefully up to it."

Independence is all about exposure, and BYU will get plenty this year and beyond.

Between ESPN's family of networks and BYUtv, the Cougars will get far more exposure than they were getting in the Mountain West Conference, despite their worldwide following.

On the flip side, a conference provided structure, continuity, scheduling and familiarity.

"There are many that hope we fail," said Mendenhall, whose biggest challenge is rebuilding his secondary. "Anytime there's a religious affiliation, it's like talking about politics; it's divisive."

Partnering with ESPN and BYU having its own network only fuels naysayers.

"'You think you're better than playing in a conference? It serves you right if you don't win.' I hear that all the time," said Mendenhall, 56-21 as BYU's head coach. "But there are as many or more that would like to see if we can pull it off and applaud the effort to carve out a new place."

BYU, if it wants to be Notre Dame-west of sorts, certainly can't afford another 7-6 season. But this is a squad that played the last half of 2010 like a Top 25 team, and returns nearly every offensive starter, including Matt Reynolds at left tackle and the man he protects — quarterback Jake Heaps.

Mendenhall already sees a night-and-day difference in Heaps from a year ago, as does running back JJ DiLuigi, who led the team with 1,422 all-purpose yard in 2010.

"He came in here as a cocky high school kid and thought he knew it all," said DiLuigi, now a senior. "I think it was a reality check those first couple of games (two straight losses after taking over midway through a 2-5 start.) He's become a whole new person as far as maturity and he really commands this offense."

With Brandon Doman taking over as offensive coordinator, the recently married Heaps has embraced BYU's pro-style system. His expectations are to put up 30 or 40 points a game.

"Why not shoot for the stars?" asked Heaps, who tied a school record with four TD passes in BYU's New Mexico Bowl win over UTEP. "We're hoping to have a very explosive offense. We have a long way to go, but we're going to be there."

He said the goals are equally high as an independent, which includes playing Notre Dame in a six-game series starting in 2012.

"We're not shooting for a conference championship. We're shooting for a national championship," Heaps said.

Mendenhall, who enters his seventh season as head coach, has the same goal having won one as a player in 1984 with Snow College. He passed up a long-term contract extension in favor of a more realistic three-year deal.

All business on the field, he is as diverse as they come off it.

Start with musical tastes that range from Bob Marley and Jack Johnson to country western. Then look at his recent family vacation: two weeks surfing in San Diego, hiking in Italy's Dolomites and a few days in the South of France.

He also loves to ride a Harley, paddleboard every Friday, fly-fish and typically reads three books at a time.

A self-described "introvert in an extrovert's job,' Mendenhall bears little resemblance to the maniacal, explosive coach he was as defensive coordinator.

"I'm more cerebral now and more comfortable in my own skin, meaning I don't care what others think," the 45-year-old said. "It comes mostly from constant praise and constant criticism and constant spotlight and realizing I shouldn't try to please everybody.

"If we maintain our winning ways in football, with more exposure, I can't see it doing anything but making us more marketable for whatever comes next, and hopefully that will outweigh the comfort of a conference."

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