PROVO — BYU looks strong and experienced in the defensive backfield for the 2012 season, where a good mix of returning experience and promising up-and-comers should provide for a solid pass defense.
The Cougars finished as the No. 32-ranked pass defense last season, with returning players such as Preston Hadley, Joe Sampson, and perhaps most importantly, Daniel Sorensen. According to defensive backs coach Nick Howell, the strength of the secondary begins with his assumed starting kat safety.
"Daniel (Sorensen) is as good athletically as anyone we've ever had," said Howell. "He trains extremely hard, he's smart. He does all the right things, and he's a BYU kid all the way. He has a chance to be very good."
Sorensen, a 6-foot-2, 206-pound junior, had the difficult task of replacing Andrew Rich last season. According to Howell, Sorensen finished the year as someone whom he could rely on in every situation.
The next player Howell mentioned as a strength is Hadley, a 6-foot, 200-pound transfer from Snow College who started at boundary corner as a junior last season.
"Preston is a guy who made a ton of plays for us last year," said Howell. "He's physical and he's an emotional leader for us."
Hadley has lingering issues with his shoulders following offseason surgery, which forced him to miss all spring practices.
"My shoulders still get sore, but the trainers say that if I had to play today that I could, so that's positive," said Hadley. "It's been frustrating sitting out this long after last season, but I'm working hard to get my strength back, and I should be fine and a lot stronger when the season starts."
Sampson might be the most-intriguing returning player of the bunch. The first-year, junior college transfer came on late in the season and provided solid play from his nickelback position.
This year, the plan is to move Sampson (5-10, 205) to free safety when in the base 3-4 formation, while having him reprise his role from last year at nickelback.
"We definitely want to expand (Sampson's) role this year," said Howell. "He made some great plays for us last year and we're excited to see what he can do this coming year."
"I feel so much more comfortable and confident knowing that I have a role this year, compared to last when I was just trying to prove myself," said Sampson. "I'm still proving myself every day, but knowing that I'll have a role by keeping on working — it makes it better. I'm excited to play anywhere and do whatever in this defense. I know this defense well now and should do much better this year because of it."
Boundary corner, free safety and kat safety all look to be filled by returning starters, but field corner is open after the graduation of Corby Eason. Sophomore Jordan Johnson (5-10, 185) is expected to replace Eason and was mentioned widely by teammates as someone who will surprise fans with his play.
"Jordan Johnson was our starting field corner out of spring practices and we're confident that he can start there for us," said Howell. "He's a very talented player and he works hard. He's someone we're excited about."
Another option at field corner is senior Robbie Buckner (5-10, 176).
"Robbie (Buckner) is someone who knows the system and someone I trust completely," said Howell.
The first player off the bench looks to be senior Mike Hague (5-10, 190), who has logged good practice time at both free safety and at boundary corner. "Mike will be the guy we'll look at to play free safety in the nickel and someone who can sub in at either corner or at safety, so he'll play an important role for us this year," said Howell.
Nickel here to stay
Coach Bronco Mendenhall was a pioneer of the 3-3-5 system — bringing the formation to BYU when he joined then-coach Gary Crowton's staff in 2003. In 2006, he switched to a more traditional 3-4 base, which featured almost no use of five defensive backs (nickel formation).
Now it appears as if Mendenhall is trending back to his roots. Five defensive backs were used frequently down the stretch of last season and look to be a staple of this year's defense.
"It's just the progression of our base 3-4 defense," explained Howell. "Teams are going with more spread formations, so it's progressing our system so we can better match up with those offenses. We have players that know our base concept well, so we can do some more things and throw some more stuff at them formation-wise and it's been good. It's something we'll use a lot this year and something we're confident with and our players are confident with."