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No.4 USC VS. BRIGHAM YOUNG Saturday at the Coliseum,
5 p.m., Channel 7

It's a Team on a Mission

Because of church commitments, BYU starters' average age is 23.4: A mature, disciplined foe for USC

September 05, 2003|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Brandon Stephens knows the scouting report.

USC's defensive linemen are relentless. Strong-willed. Uncontrollable at times.

Stephens, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound offensive tackle for Brigham Young, is not intimidated. Not as the married father of two young daughters.

"I can tell you that no defensive line in the nation is as ferocious as my little girls when they wake up at 3:30 in the morning -- and certainly not as hungry," Stephens said.

Stephens, a senior who will turn 25 in December, is one of 38 married players on BYU's roster. Eight are fathers. Four have wives who are expecting.

Because so many BYU players interrupt their careers to perform two years of missionary work for the Mormon Church -- which owns and operates the university -- the average age of the Cougars' 22 starters is 23.4 years.

Fourth-ranked USC, therefore, expects to face a mature and worldly BYU team when the Cougars visit the Coliseum on Saturday for the first game between the schools.

BYU defeated Georgia Tech, 24-13, in its opener last week.

"Their players are not going to blow many assignments -- they're going to do their job," said USC quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian, who played for BYU in 1995 and 1996. "They're married, they have children, they have responsibilities in life, so it creates that mentality."

Not all of BYU's players are church members, who must be 19 or older to go on voluntary missions.

Some athletes, such as starting quarterback Matt Berry, redshirt their first year at BYU, then leave for two years and return to begin their playing careers.

Others, such as wide receiver Chris Hale, play as true freshmen, leave for two years and then return and redshirt a year before resuming their careers.

In some cases, players initially attend school part-time as "grayshirts" so their eligibility clock does not start, then they leave for two years and redshirt for a year after they return.

Those who turn 19 shortly after graduating from high school can serve missions before they enroll.

Among BYU's offensive starters are seven returning missionaries and one fifth-year senior.

The defense features six returning missionaries and three fifth-year seniors.

The long-running debate regarding BYU is whether the Cougars have an unfair advantage over younger opponents.

USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who coached at BYU for 27 seasons, said it is difficult to quantify.

"The advantage is on the emotional side, the personality side," Chow said. "Football-wise, I don't know."

Hale, a 22-year-old redshirt sophomore, described it as a long road back for players who serve missions. Some gain weight because of diet and limited physical activity. Others lose weight and muscularity because they are not working out with weights.

"All that hard work you did when you were playing goes down the drain," he said.

Hale, however, said he is a much better football player than when he left for his mission in Ecuador after the 1999 season.

"I grew up. All around, I'm a lot more confident," said Hale, who caught four passes for 34 yards against Georgia Tech. "I'm not out there afraid to make a mistake. As a true freshman, my biggest fear was messing up in front of all those people."

When Chow was offensive coordinator at BYU, no quarterbacks who left to serve missions returned to become regular starters.

But that is changing under third-year BYU Coach Gary Crowton.

Berry, a 6-5, 218-pound sophomore whom Chow recruited before leaving to take a job at North Carolina State after the 1999 season, is starting this season. Berry returned from a mission in Panama in the spring of 2002 and became the starter in the seventh game last season.

Ben Olson, regarded as one of the nation's top quarterback prospects coming out of Thousand Oaks High in 2002, redshirted at BYU last season before leaving for a mission in Canada. He is expected to return for the 2005 season.

Stephens, who served a mission in Romania in 1998-99, is confident that the Cougars' mix of skill, experience and composure will aid them as they attempt to upset USC.

He said he is looking forward to playing in the Coliseum before what is expected to be a large contingent of BYU fans.

And he is eager to face the talented Trojan defensive line, even though the players are younger and faster.

"I feel like a grandpa," he said. "And I have two kids, so I'm on my way to being one."

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