PROVO — It was nearly five years ago when Mike Hague, then a true freshman at BYU, took a handoff late in a blowout victory against UNLV and rumbled 87 yards for a touchdown.
During his impressive prep career at Brighton High, Hague rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 28 touchdowns as a senior.
But as he enters his junior season with the Cougars, Hague is no longer a running back.
Now, he's a free safety — and loving every minute of it.
"I do have that reputation of being more of an offensive guy. But at the same time, defensive guys have a few screws loose. On the field, people think I have a few screws loose," said Hague, who still wears a running back number, 32. "I love to hit. I have to refrain when we're not in full pads. It's hard for me to pull it back from hitting. I hope to establish myself as a defensive football player. That's what I want. I'll be returning kicks this year, so I'll still have a bit of an offensive mentality there."
Last year's starting free safety, senior Travis Uale, returns this season and Hague is listed as the backup. Uale, who suffered cracked ribs during fall camp, is expected to start Saturday in the season-opener at Ole Miss, but Mendenhall said Hague will also see significant playing time.
"I need to make hay when I get the chance," Hague said. "Travis and I are extremely good friends. During fall camp, people wanted to make it into a free safety controversy. You've got to understand our schedule and the demand that there is on a free safety and on a defensive back in general, especially in that hot and humid climate (at Ole Miss). If you can get the defense to trust two free safeties, instead of just one, you're going to be that much stronger. Whenever I get my chance, I want to do the best I can. I'll prepare for any game like I am the starter."
As a reserve running back for BYU, Hague earned a reputation for being a hard hitter, a ball carrier who knew how to dish out punishment. Last fall, Hague didn't like his playing weight and ended up shedding 45 pounds. Hague, who stands 5-foot-10, now weighs 190 pounds.
"I still feel like I'm playing at 220 and I'll come up and hit like I'm 220, which can be to my detriment because there are times when I need to protect myself," Hague said. "It has been an adjustment. I haven't been 185 since I was in eighth or ninth grade. It's definitely an adjustment."
When Hague committed to BYU as a junior in high school, he did so as a safety. But after reporting to fall camp in 2006, he was switched to running back due to some injuries on the offense.
"I never came back (to safety)," said Hague, who has battled a variety of injuries himself the past couple of seasons. Then Mendenhall approached him last winter and asked if he'd like to return to the safety position.
"It's kind of an understanding between me and coach Mendenhall that that's my mentality and that if I wanted to come back, if there was a team need, I'd come back," Hague said. "I feel really comfortable with the defense. Your intelligence level — nothing against the offense — I've had to increase that as far as watching film and understanding different coverages. At the same time, it's also helped me having an offensive mind as well. Coming from the offensive side of the ball, understanding route schemes and route combinations, run-blocking, pass-blocking, helps me read my keys faster, knowing the offensive mentality at the college level. I'm happy over here. It would be hard for me to go back to running back, if I was asked to go back, unless I could do both. I'm happy where I am. I'm extremely blessed to be in the position I'm in."
With a couple of injuries to fullbacks in fall camp — Iona Pritchard suffered a season-ending leg injury and Zed Mendenhall has been hobbled with a sprained ankle — Hague has taken notice.
"Don't think I haven't said a few words to coaches about that," he said. "I always offer my services to make sure that they know that I'm here. I still do understand blocking schemes."
For now, though, Hague has found a home in BYU's defensive secondary.
"We've come together as a group as defensive backs. We have a lot of talent, guys that can play, corners who can cover anybody," he said. "One of our corners, Preston Hadley, always says, 'We need to play with some swag.' I think we're starting to play with some swag. We're going to establish ourselves as a position group that makes a lot of noise. And we're going to play with some swag."
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