Is The Mormon Mission The Best Kept Secret In College Football?
Watching explosive skill players and large-bodied linemen suiting up each Saturday during the college football season, we as fans and media often forget that the majority of these players are merely teenage boys or young men not yet old enough to legally drink.
That is not necessarily the case in the state of Utah, or on the campus of Brigham Young University in particular. Many people outside the BYU program and outside the Mormon faith feel that the Cougars have for many years benefitted tremendously from a staggering age difference in their football players versus the age of their opponents each season. The University of Utah has historically featured far fewer players of the Mormon faith than their counterparts at BYU, and are more open to discussing the age and background of their student-athletes.
“We have many athletes on our football team that have served LDS church missions,” said Utah Head Coach Kyle Whittingham. “We feel that these athletes have had a very positive impact on our program and add a level of maturity to the team. These athletes have been out on their own throughout different parts of the world for two years and have learned many life lessons and how to be self sufficient. As a coaching staff, any of our athletes that choose to serve religious missions have our full support.”
Utah’s 2011 roster features 30 players who have completed LDS missions. Three starters for the Utes are 24 years old or older. There are 23 players on the team that are 23 or older, with 13 of those players listed as juniors or underclassmen. Thus, they will have a very veteran group in terms of age over the next two seasons. In comparison to BYU’s roster, however, they will be a much younger football team.
BYU Football Spokesman Brett Pyne stated that for privacy purposes BYU does not publish the date of birth of their student-athletes. According to the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News, an astounding 76 players on this year’s BYU roster have completed LDS missions abroad, which last a minimum of two years and sometimes longer. Many of those players are redshirted for a year upon their return, thus by the time most of the BYU players enter their Junior or Senior seasons on the field, they are often 24-26 years old. To put this age differential into perspective, the 2011 season opener tells the tale. BYU visited Ole Miss on September 3rd, and came away with a 14-13 road victory. Ole Miss started 8 players that day that were 19 years old or younger. The five oldest players on the Ole Miss roster are 23 years old, and they are all seniors.
Utah and BYU have both enjoyed tremendous success on the football field, especially since 2000. Utah has gone 99-41 (8-1 in bowl games), including an undefeated season in 2005. BYU has gone 92-60 over that same timeframe, including 7 bowl appearances.
“The bottom line is it’s a competitive advantage for BYU,” said a current NCAA Division 1 Head Coach who asked to remain anonymous. “Their 25-year old Left Tackle, who is a grown man in his physical prime, should be able to handle my teenager that lines up at D-End. That’s just the laws of nature. In the 4th quarter, who is better suited to deal with adversity? The guy in his mid-twenties who’s married and has a child, or the teenager lined up across from him? Yes, Utah has Mormon players, but it pales in comparison to BYU’s roster. Those are men playing at BYU. We know it, and we make sure our players know what they are up against when we play them.”
This maturity advantage manifests itself not only emotionally, but physically as well. Most NFL players are cut or retire prior to reaching the age of 29. A report issued by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office in April of 2011 states the average career in the NFL for a player who makes a team as a rookie is 6 years. So, the average player drafted at age 22 or 23 will be peaking in terms of his football and athletic ability around the age of 25 or 26 and then will have diminished by the age of 29. Thus, when the majority of BYU’s upper classmen range in age from 23-26 years old, they are essentially in their athletic peak as men. It’s difficult not to see the competitive advantage that gives BYU on the field.
The flipside of that argument is that the coaching staff at BYU, Utah, or any other program that has a Mormon player may have a young man as a freshman, and then lose him for two years. When that player returns, he’s been away from football and essentially has to be retrained in every aspect of the game, from fundamentals to x’s and o’s. At Utah and especially at BYU, coaching staffs face the challenge of roster maintenance. They must balance the number of players exiting the program for two-year LDS missions while others are returning to the program upon completion of their own missions. With a strict number of 85 scholarships to distribute, maintaining functional depth at each position becomes paramount.
The discussion about the advantages that older players face versus their younger counterparts will soon be thrust into the national spotlight. Now that the first month of the college football season is complete, the Heisman Trophy race inevitably heats up. Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden is in the mix, as he’s having yet another monstrous season for the Cowboys. He got his first start in the 2009 season, and was named the full-time starter at the start of the 2010 season. Weeden turns 28 on October 14th. Prior to joining the OSU football program, he was a 2nd round draft pick of the New York Yankees in 2002, and spent five years in the minor leagues. He’s putting up phenomenal numbers for the 2ndstraight year at Oklahoma State, yet there are people questioning the legitimacy of his exploits on the field due to his age and maturity compared to his competition.
The same talk surrounded Chris Weinke, who guided the Florida State Seminoles to a spectacular 3-year stretch from 1998-2000. FSU won a National Title, went 32-3 during his three seasons as the starter, and Weinke won the Heisman Trophy after his senior season. He was also 28 years old when he received the honor.
If it’s controversial for Weinke and Weeden to receive Heisman consideration based on their ages, should the same discussion encompass the BYU football program? Approximately 20% of the Utah roster is comprised of players who’ve completed the LDS mission and thus will be in their mid-20’s when they are seniors. Meanwhile, almost 80% of the BYU roster has completed an LDS mission. Is it fair that the vast majority of BYU players are physically and emotionally more mature than the players they face each Saturday?
One former Pac12 Assistant Coach who also requested anonymity expressed a separate concern regarding players taking the LDS mission.
“Those LDS kids are good people and we never had any issues with their behavior. Our issues arose when they were gone for two years, then came back telling us they wanted to transfer to BYU all of a sudden. Thankfully the NCAA stepped in after what happened to Utah State.”
The incident the coach was referring to involved Riley Nelson, a Parade All-American in high school who set several Utah High School passing records. He started 8 games as a true freshman in 2006 for Utah State, earning Team Captain status. He left campus after that season to serve his LDS mission in Barcelona, Spain. Upon returning from his mission, he stunned the coaching staff with news that he would be transferring to BYU. Although Utah State chose not to dive into an ugly spat with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints-run BYU publicly, behind the scenes Utah State officials were livid with what had taken place. Rumors of BYU’s recruitment of athletes while on their LDS missions ran rampant, and Nelson became the poster child for the discussion. In 2009, the NCAA adopted new legislation that was presented by Utah State and the Western Athletic Conference to prevent such an occurrence in the future:
220.127.116.11.2.1 Exception — Official Church Mission. An institution shall not contact a student-athlete who has begun service on an official church mission without obtaining permission from the institution from which the student-athlete withdrew prior to beginning his or her mission if the student-athlete signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI) and attended the institution (with which he or she signed the NLI) as a full-time student. If such a student-athlete has completed his or her official church mission and does not enroll full time in a collegiate institution within one calendar year of completion of the mission, an institution may contact the student-athlete without obtaining permission from the first institution.
So in layman’s terms, the new NCAA rule states that a player who leaves school to take an LDS mission may not transfer nor have any contact with another program unless he or she sits out of school completely for a full calendar year afterreturning from the mission.
In case you missed it, Riley Nelson made national headlines this past weekend as he marched BYU on a 96-yard game winning drive to cap a wild come-from-behind 27-24 victory over… Utah State.
The question remains as to whether or not BYU has won a multitude of football games simply because the majority of their players are physically and emotionally more mature than their opponents. Meanwhile, the men in Provo, Utah are quietly going about their business on the gridiron as they’ve always done.
Warren McCarty Hosts MPIF Radio weekends on Mile High Sports Radio 93.7FM & 1510AM in Denver. His website is www.mypassionisfootball.com.