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May 18, 2012

Independence brings exposure to BYU

On the surface, BYU hasn't really changed its recruiting strategy in the year since making the move to football independence.

The Cougars continue to recruit nationally with an emphasis on their home state and the rest of the West. And they're naturally targeting top players who also belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That's the same formula BYU followed as a member of the Mountain West Conference.

But the switch certainly has widened BYU's pool of potential targets, particularly among non-LDS recruits. That's becoming more and more noticeable to BYU's coaches as they prepare for their second season as an independent.

"It's at least double in terms of that amount of interest," BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "And that's being driven by exposure."

The difference isn't apparent from a look at BYU's recent recruiting classes.

BYU signed 17 players (including two returning missionaries) from six different states in 2012 after 68 percent of its 2011 class came from Utah. Neither group was as geographically diverse as the 2010 class that signed before BYU announced its plans to go independent. That 2010 class included players from 10 different states.

The five juniors currently committed to BYU all come from Utah, Nevada or Oregon - three of the top eight states in terms of LDS populations. Players from that section of the country likely would have been attracted to BYU whether the program was independent or part of a conference.

"Being independent I think helps out with recruiting, but it wouldn't change whether I'd want to go there," said Aloha (Ore.) junior offensive tackle Brayden Kearsley, a three-star recruit and LDS member who committed to BYU last fall. "My relationship with the [BYU] coaches is extremely strong, and I don't think I could get a better relationship with the coaches at any other school."

Even if the effects of the move aren't obvious now, they could become more apparent down the road, thanks to the increased visibility that has come with independence.

After announcing its plans in the summer of 2010, BYU signed an eight-year contract with ESPN that allowed each of its home games to air on one of ESPN's platforms or on BYUtv, which reaches over 60 million households in North America. The contract requires at least three home games each year to air on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2.

That exposure raised BYU's profile among recruits who wouldn't seem like obvious fits.

About 90 percent of BYU's current players are LDS members, and that figure might not change much in the future. But now that BYU is appearing on more television sets, the program at least is better known to non-LDS prospects outside its typical recruiting base.

"[Non-LDS prospects] won't ever be the majority of kids that we sign," Mendenhall said. "But the number - and the diversity of places they're coming from - showing interest now is a direct benefit of our independence."

Providence (R.I.) La Salle Academy running back/defensive back Josh Morris represents one potential example.

The overwhelming majority of BYU players are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which reportedly had over 6.2 million members as of Dec. 31, 2011. Here are the 10 states with the most LDS members.
Arizona 395,296
(Source: www.mormonnewsroom.org)
Morris isn't an LDS member. He's Catholic.

And he plays at a school about 2,400 miles from BYU's campus while representing a state that hosted the NFL's first night game in 1929 - the Providence Steam Roller lost 16-0 to the Chicago Cardinals - but hasn't produced much football history since. According to the Rivals.com database, no player has signed with an FBS program directly from a Rhode Island high school since South Kingstown's Jake Flaherty went to Syracuse in 2004.

Yet that hasn't stopped Morris and BYU from communicating. Morris, Rhode Island's 2011 Gatorade state player of the year, plans to visit BYU in June with hopes of securing his first FBS offer.

The contact between Morris and BYU is a testament to the Cougars' desire to recruit nationally. And it also speaks volumes for BYU's national exposure in the wake of its decision to go independent.

All but one of BYU's home games last year appeared on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. The lone exception was on BYUtv, which also runs a one-hour pregame show and a 30-minute postgame show for every BYU football game. Nine of BYU's games last season were available to at least 100 million households in North America, while only one was available in fewer than 60 million homes.

Four of BYU's first six games this fall (Aug. 30 vs. Washington State, Sept. 20 at Boise State, Sept. 28 vs. Hawaii and Oct. 5 vs. Utah State) will air in prime time on ESPN or ESPN2. A Sept. 8 game with Weber State will run on BYUtv, and NBC will show the Oct. 20 game at Notre Dame. Broadcast plans haven't been announced yet for the rest of the schedule.

As potential recruits from the East Coast, Southeast or Midwest tune in to those nationally televised games this fall, they undoubtedly hear at some point that BYU won at least 10 games five of the last six years.

"They learn all this when they watch us play," Mendenhall said. "All of a sudden, BYU becomes a viable option for them, especially if they're a socially conservative kid and they're not into all the partying and [being] the typical wild college kid. They then think, 'Man, that could be a great place for me.' "

Of course, that's the issue.

BYU isn't the type of school that's going to appeal to every recruit. The BYU honor code prevents students from engaging in premarital sex or using alcohol or tobacco. Even tea and coffee are forbidden. Male students are prohibited from wearing earrings and aren't allowed to wear beards or goatees without permission.

Independence may have helped make BYU's program more visible to non-LDS prospects. But how many of those guys would be able to handle BYU's restrictions?

Here's a rundown of BYU's 2013 verbal commitments. All of them are three-star recruits.
Brayden KearsleyOTAloha (Ore.)
Moroni Laulu-PututauWRHyrum (Utah) Mountain Crest
Dallin LeavittSPortland (Ore.) Central Catholic
Trajan PiliLBLas Vegas (Nev.) Centennial
Talon ShumwayWRHighland (Utah) Lone Peak
BYU's strict disciplinary policy garnered plenty of attention after star running back Harvey Unga voluntarily left school in the spring of 2010 and basketball player Brandon Davies was suspended in the spring of 2011 for honor code violations. In each case, premarital sex reportedly was the cause.

Even after the national publicity that surrounded those two cases, many non-LDS prospects unfamiliar with BYU might not know the extent of the school's honor code. No wonder BYU likes to use "Fit First" as its recruiting philosophy.

Mendenhall says he makes sure to educate prospects on the university's standards and requirements. He emphasizes that even more the farther away he goes from the West, where the majority of LDS members live.

"When in doubt, if we're not positive they'd have a fantastic experience here, we actually encourage them to go elsewhere," Mendenhall said. "We have to be convinced they'll love this place and really want to be here and want these values and want this experience."

Although he isn't an LDS member, Morris said BYU's honor code wouldn't prevent him from considering if the Cougars offered him a scholarship.

"If you want to succeed in football, you don't want to be partying or drinking alcohol or something like that," Morris said. "It's almost a structure to benefit the student-athlete and help them succeed. By keeping you away from all the excess and stuff other than football, it's almost like keeping you to your schoolwork and keeping you on the right path. ... It's definitely not something I'm worried about at all. I'm a disciplined kid."

While Mendenhall has touted how the move to independence has raised BYU's national visibility, the switch also may have been necessary to appeal to in-state recruits.

BYU and Utah previously had competed on equal footing for local prospects as Mountain West Conference foes. After Utah joined the Pac-12, BYU was left with a choice: Remain in an inferior league or forge its own path.

The choice is even clearer in retrospect, now that TCU has left the Mountain West for the Big 12 while Boise State and San Diego State prepare to head to the Big East. The current version of the Mountain West is a shell of the conference BYU left behind.

This isn't much of a surprise to Mendenhall. He said he proposed trying to lure Fresno State, Boise State and Hawaii from the Western Athletic Conference a few years ago, back when Utah still belonged to the Mountain West. That was before conference realignment shook up college football.

Boise State eventually joined the Mountain West as a replacement for BYU, though it's now on its way out the door as well. The Mountain West also is indeed adding Fresno State and Hawaii, but a league that once could have made a decent case for BCS automatic-qualifying status now is simply trying to survive.

"I'm not going to say I was right or pat myself on my back, but you could just sense [realignment] was coming," Mendenhall said. "I was hoping to stay ahead of it because I could sense it."

Now he senses that his school made the right move.

He hopes BYU's recruiting targets feel the same.

Steve Megargee is the national college columnist for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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(Class of 2012 BYU signee Tanner Mangum)

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