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BYU gears up for independent days

PROVO, Utah — As a recreational surfer, Brigham Young 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 Mississippi 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 Texas Christian.

“We didn’t go independent to be safe,” Mendenhall said of the tough early schedule that begins on Sept. 3. “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 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 Texas-El Paso. “We’re hoping to have a very explosive offense. We have a long way to go, but we’re going to be there.”

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