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Bronco Leaning More on Non-LDS Athletes

24 April 2014 Brett Richins
BYU running back Jamaal Williams is one of several non-LDS players who will contribute in 2014. (BYU photo)

BYU’s Jamaal Williams is one of several non-LDS players who will contribute in 2014. (BYU photo)

Over the past few decades, as BYU has grown into a nationally recognized football program, the Cougars have benefited from the contribution of a large number of stars who were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Starting with the golden era of BYU football, right through to the present day, dozens of players of other faiths have helped to put the school on the college football map.

In fact, some of BYU’s greatest moments and highest achievements have been turned in by athletes who were not LDS.

From Gary Sheide leading BYU to its first WAC title under LaVell Edwards and a Fiesta Bowl bid in 1974, to Jim McMahon’s Hail Mary throw to fellow Catholic Clay Brown in the Miracle Bowl in 1980, to Ty Detmer’s incredible Heisman-winning performance in 1990, to Omar Morgan’s game-clinching interception in the 1997 Cotton Bowl, to Cody Hoffman’s recent assault on the BYU receiving record book, non-Mormons have left an indelible mark on Cougar football.

When current head coach Bronco Mendenhall took over the program in 2005, it had suffered through a period in which a handful of non-LDS athletes not only failed to live by the school’s honor code, they found themselves embroiled in a highly-public legal case, accused of rape.

It was embarrassing for the program, the university and it’s sponsoring Church.

Mendenhall pledged to clean up the program and re-emphasize the honor code in the process. Part of the solution was to focus his recruiting efforts on LDS players that he believed would be able to live by the standards required, student-athletes who had essentially lived those standards from the time they were very young.

That philosophy has helped the program to avoid the kind of honor code scandals and problems that it suffered through during the tenure of Gary Crowton, while also returning BYU to its winning ways. During national signing day in 2013, Bronco stated that 90 percent of his team was LDS and that 16 of his 22 starters were either return missionaries or guys planning to leave on missions in the future.

Recently, however, the coach has voiced his intent to try to improve the overall athleticism of his team in order to get to the next level and better accomplish the program’s goal of making it into the new college football playoffs and to compete for a national title.

That has meant thinking a little more out of the box and throwing a larger recruiting net in order to seek out athletes from different places and different backgrounds, but who have similar values and standards espoused by BYU. Mendenhall even went so far as to hire a non-LDS recruiting coordinator in Geoff Martzen last April.

The results have been interesting to observe over the last year.

Over 30 percent of the 2014 recruits who signed on to play football at BYU this past February were not members of the Church. In the two-and-a-half months since national letter of intent day, the program has added three more non-LDS players in the form of senior transfers. That means that nine of the 22 new players entering the program this year are not LDS.

Even with the addition of 14 returned missionaries coming in for 2014, when the Cougars take the field against UConn in late August they’ll have a much different make up, one that includes more than a dozen non-LDS players who should see considerable playing time this year.


On offense the Cougars expect to get significant contributions from no less than seven non-LDS players in 2014.

The post-spring depth chart released by the program lists one non-LDS starter on the offensive line in De’Ondre Wesley. The big 6-7, 330-pound senior is listed as the starter at left tackle ahead of highly-regarded freshman Ului Lapuaho.

De’Ondre started nine games last year at right tackle after transferring from Diablo Valley Junior College in California. He could end up at right tackle once again depending on how Lapuaho develops this fall.

Star running back Jamaal Williams may be the most high profile of all of the athletes who are not members of BYU’s sponsoring institution. The junior has rushed for 2,008 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first two seasons as a Cougar, while also reeling in 45 pass receptions for 440 yards and another score. In 2013, Jamaal averaged just under 103 yards rushing per game.

BYU also looks to get production from five non-LDS receivers this coming season, including inside receiver Terren Houk, who made significant strides during the spring and is currently listed as the No. 1 inside receiver ahead of Brett Thompson.

The Cougars will also have the services of converted cornerback Mike Davis and highly-recruited JC transfer Nick Kurtz at wide receiver. Both athletes were listed on the two-deep coming out of spring camp and both are expected to continue on a trajectory of improvement as they gain experience in the offensive system.

When fall camp opens, coaches will also get their hands on a couple of other talented, non-LDS wideouts in transfers Jordan Leslie and Ashanti Blackmon. Leslie is a senior who figures to play a big role given his experience and production at UTEP, while Blackmon brings a high level of athleticism to Provo.


On the defensive side of the ball, the Cougars will rely on several other non-LDS athletes.

Nose tackle Marques Johnson emerged this spring as a co-starter along with recently returned missionary Travis Tuiloma despite missing all of spring camp due to blood clots in his lungs. Johnson made solid progress last season after redshirting in 2012 and shared time in the middle of the defensive front three with Eathyn Manumaleuna.

Linebacker Jherremya Leuta-Douyere has moved from the outside to the inside this year and is currently listed as the back up at buck linebacker behind Manoa Pikula. JLD played in 12 of BYU’s 13 games last year and had his best day as a Cougar at Wisconsin where he recorded three tackles and forced a fumble.

Meanwhile, a secondary that was decimated by injury last season should be the strength of the defense in 2014, thanks in large part to a number of non-LDS student-athlete who are expected to make major contributions.

Jordan Johnson is back at field corner after missing all of 2013 due to a torn ACL. Though he was not allowed to have contact in the spring he is once again listed as the starter at one of the key positions on the field.

Jordan is listed ahead of Trent Trammell, another non-LDS talent who figures to play a key role on the 2014 defense. Trent can play either corner spot and was thought to be the leading candidate to start at boundary corner. Despite being listed as the second-team FC, he’s likely to start opposite Johnson when the season gets under way. He saw a lot of action in the spring after coming back from a torn ACL himself.

Then there is the surprise from last year’s secondary, Rob Daniel. A late addition to the program, Daniel surpassed all expectations when injuries forced him into playing field corner. His experience gained last season should pay big dividends in 2014. The senior was expected to slide over into a starting role at free safety this coming season, but he’s currently listed as the starting boundary corner.

The player that could end up as the starting free safety is Nebraska transfer Harvey Jackson. The senior will have one year of eligibility and is able to transfer to BYU and immediately play because he’ll have already received his degree from Nebraska. Jackson started three games for the Cornhuskers last year and has played in a total of 35 games in his three seasons playing in Lincoln.


If the Cougars are actually going to someday challenge for another national championship, they’re going to need the help of a good number of talented, non-LDS players. It was true in BYU’s glory days and it’s still true today. Mendenhall realizes that and he seems to be finding those players from different backgrounds who have the ability to fit in at BYU.

He’ll need to continue along this path in order to get the Cougars back to being relevant nationally. There are plenty of non-LDS athletes who would appreciate the lifestyle offered at a unique place like BYU. The trick is finding them and educating them about what the school and program have to offer.

Mendenhall leaning more on non-LDS talent is a good thing, and the fact that he and his staff appear to be committed to taking steps in that direction should help BYU better compete on a national level.

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