Before the 2001 season, an NFL scout sized up senior defensive end Ryan Denney's pro potential by saying, "[He] is not strong and will get knocked back at the point of attack by bigger offensive tackles."
Hopefully, that scout caught the BYU-Cal game last September.
When BYU traveled to Berkeley to take on the Golden Bears, Denney had his best game of the season. He finished the game with two sacks, seven tackles, three for a loss, a forced fumble, a pass deflection and generally wreaked havoc in Cal's offensive backfield.
"Everything was going well," Denney said. "I was beating my man, getting tackles and getting sacks. Everything was clicking for me in that game. It just felt good."
Denney received Mountain West Conference Player of the Week honors for his domination in the Cal game. It was the first such honor for the 6-7, 270-pound senior defensive lineman from Thornton, Colo.
The same NFL scout who questioned Denney's strength gave Denney a backhanded compliment when the scout said, "Denney is a smart player, but he won't 'wow' you with his physical gifts."
On October 27, the Cougars played against San Diego State in Qualcomm Stadium. Denney "wowed" 30,064 fans and thousands of viewers with what he called the individual highlight of his collegiate career.
With the game scoreless and the Aztecs driving, BYU's defense buckled down and forced a fourth down. The Cougars needed a big play to seize the game's momentum and the special teams unit came through in the crunch. Senior linebacker Justin Ena burst through the line, extended and blocked the attempted field goal.
"Justin said he was going to block it," Denney said. "It was like I was watching it in slow-motion. He hit it and it just bounced right to me."
Denney picked up the ball and headed down the field. If anyone questioned his speed, Denney silenced his doubters by out-running everyone on the way to the first touchdown of his collegiate career.
During the 82-yard touchdown return, Denney had one thing going through his mind. "Just don't get caught," he told himself.
Making Denney's return even more impressive, he was still nursing an injured toe. Denney had been plagued with turf toe for the past month and wasn't sure how effective he would be at running the length of the field.
"I enjoy running and I have speed," Denney said. "I had worked out in the pool and on the bike, but I hadn't run so I was out of shape."
But even while admitting it was a highlight of his career, Denney was quick to downplay the return, saying he was merely doing his job.
"That's my responsibility on those plays," he said. "I come up on the side and I'm supposed to wait for the block."
Denney is used to being in the right place at the right time. But coming out of high school, Denney wasn't sure what would be the right place for him. Denney grew up going to his church meeting house and watching BYU football games. His father Craig played offensive tackle for the Cougars from 1971-1973, so BYU football was in his blood. But Colorado, Colorado State and Northwestern heavily recruited the star defensive end and Denney had a tough time deciding what was his best option.
"There was a lot of pressure to go to the Colorado schools and be a hometown hero," Denney said. "But when it came down to it, I had always wanted to come here and when I was given the chance, I just jumped at it. I'm pretty happy with my decision."
BYU's coaching staff was just as happy with Denney's decision. But the coaches would have to wait a while to see Denney in action. In 1995, Denney accepted a call to serve in the Argentina Buenos Aires North Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"I went on a mission and kind of forgot about football," Denney said. "I didn't work out and I never ran. I would play soccer [once a week] with the Argentines."
Despite not playing American football and being away from the game for two years, Denney was blessed physically when he returned home.
"When I came back I was faster and I was stronger," Denney said. "I didn't lose any weight, which is kind of unusual."
But more than the physical blessings, Denney said he learned a lot about focus and dedication.
"Every opportunity you get to dedicate two years of your life to anything, especially a good cause like preaching the gospel, is worth it," Denney said.
Ryan isn't the only Denney manning BYU's defensive line this year, at least during practice. Ryan's younger brother John is redshirting this season and will likely begin his tenure as the Denney on the d-line next season. The Denney brothers are only 18 months apart and the two competed their whole childhood.
"It was competitive then and it is now as far as workouts and practice stuff," Ryan said. "Growing up, my childhood memories are all about playing sports. We'd play football or baseball, shoot hoops, play horse or one-on-one."
Coming out of high school, Ryan never thought playing on the same college team as John was even a possibility. Ryan said John was only 6-2 and overweight. But while John was on his mission to Morristown, N.J., he grew three inches. Then he had a stellar year at Ricks College and transferred to BYU. Having his younger brother here helps Ryan perform to the best of his ability.
"He was here this off-season and we worked out together," Denney said. "We were lifting hard with each other and trying to push each other. It was great."
John Denney isn't the only one helping Ryan Denney silence NFL scouts who question Ryan's strength. New strength and conditioning coach Jay Omer has been a great influence for Ryan this season.
"I was strong before, but he has helped tremendously," Denney said. "He doesn't demand respect, but you just want to impress him. You want to do what he wants you to do. He doesn't raise his voice or call you names or anything like that. He's a quiet leader."
Another quiet leader who has influenced Denney in his play at BYU has been defensive line coach Tom Ramage.
"He's been great," Denney said. "As far as coaching, he's always talking about team unity and team pride. We always try and help each other."
Ramage holds a defensive line party after each victory, and so far this year there have been a lot of gatherings. The d-line has managed to stay unified under Denney's leadership despite losing three All-MWC performers from last year's team. Setema Gali, Chris Hoke and Hans Olsen all graduated and left the defensive line with some holes to fill.
"It was a big loss," Denney said. "They're just good guys and hard workers."
And while the defense has struggled at times to stop opposing offenses, Denney's defense has always made the big plays in the tight situations.
"When it comes down to it, we toughen up," Denney said. "I think that's when we have proven ourselves, when we are in those tight situations."
Looking towards next year, Denney tries not to think about what scouts say and lets his play do the talking. He's heard the skeptics, but in the end he knows what he does this final season is what will determine his ability to play professional football.
"People said certain things before, I just haven't worried about it," Denney said. "Hopefully, I've shown some people some things they didn't know about me."
That's exactly what Denney has done all year. Not only did Denney record his first touchdown, he had the first interception of his life to ice the Colorado State game. Being from Colorado, nothing felt better than getting revenge for last year's 45-21 loss in Fort Collins. At that game, Denney had over 50 friends and relatives come to cheer him on, only to witness Denney and the Cougars get slaughtered.
"It was the first chance for all my friends to see me play in Colorado," Denney said. "It was snowing, it was cold and right out of the chutes we're just getting beat. It was probably one of my worst games."
So when Denney grabbed the ball out of the air after Brett Keisel got a piece of the pass, revenge was sweet. And since this is his senior season, he has the bragging rights among hometown friends for the rest of his life.
The senior defender will likely get his chance to show his stuff in the pros. A legacy of hard work and determination won't be the only thing he will leave behind at BYU.
He'll also leave some pretty big shoes to fill.