PROVO — The battle for BYU's two starting cornerback spots hasn't quite sorted itself out yet, but it's close. And with only two weeks of practices left before the Cougars kick off against Ole Miss, it has to be sorted out soon.
"It's been a good battle all fall, which you like as a coach," said defensive backs coach Nick Howell. "There's a lot of guys competing, and I love the effort, but we'll be having to decide here soon who we're going to play, and it will be a tough decision."
The competition for the two starting cornerback spots was wide open entering fall camp, with two graduating starters lost from a year ago. It was subsequently the second-most intriguing battle during fall practice sessions.
If the season started today, coaches would go with Corby Eason at field corner and junior college transfer Preston Hadley at boundary corner. Eason was someone who was penciled in by just about everyone to fill one of the two cornerback spots.
"He's smart," Howell said of Eason. "He knows the defense and the coverages that we do better than anyone. He's someone you want out there. I trust him."
Eason entered fall camp as the player with the most experience among those set to compete at cornerback. Last year, he split time with Brandon Bradley at the boundary corner spot.
This year, fans will likely see him take most of his reps at field corner. The field corner plays on the long side of the field and subsequently requires the position to cover a lot more space, oftentimes in man-on-man coverage.
So is Eason up to the task?
"Definitely," said Eason. "I mean, I'm ready, I know I can cover guys, lock them down. I'm ready to go. I'm ready to go wherever they need me to go."
Fans will remember Eason primarily for his ability to blitz off the edge last season, accounting for some punishing hits on quarterbacks that often went for sacks.
This year, he won't be blitzing much, if at all, from his field corner position, but he's OK with it.
"Blitzing is one of my favorite things to do. I love it, but I do just what the coaches ask," he said. "It's a new challenge for me, but I'm up for that challenge. I have good feet, I have quick feet, so I can cover man-on-man whenever they need me."
Eason has been the most consistent cover guy throughout fall camp. "I can trust him in any situation to get it done," said Howell.
Backing up Eason at field corner will be freshman Jordan Johnson and junior Robbie Buckner. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday that Johnson has the edge in that backup spot, although it's very close.
Overall, the competition at field corner has been much more competitive than it has during most years at BYU.
"It's good. It's real good," Eason said about the increased depth at his position. "The young guys push hard every day, and they can play. It's my job to help them out whenever I can, and it's good because they're competing hard and the competition is real good. We have like eight guys that could play and do well, so you have to prove yourself when you're out there every day."
The boundary position has filtered into a two-man race between two junior college transfers. Preston Hadley nosed up in front due to his play this past spring, but he's being pushed hard by Joe Sampson for the starting nod.
"Joe knows how to play and he has a good attitude," Eason said. "He has great instincts, he's quick, but he's thick, too. He'll come up and hit you hard. He'll hurt you, and that's what you like about Joe."
While Mike Hague continues to battle Travis Uale for the starting spot at free safety, the backup spot at strong safety is in flux. Daniel Sorensen is expected to be the starter, but it's Carter Mees who has edged in front as his primary backup.
Mees is actually someone who has starting experience. Last year against TCU, he got the starting nod and performed very well before getting hurt.
"It was very frustrating because of all I've been through to get a chance to finally play," he said of the injury that ended his season. "I finally get my chance to start, and I play well, but then just get hurt and can't play anymore. It's very frustrating."
Uale got the nod at free safety after Mees went down with his injury and will likely start at the position again this fall. With Uale being established and with Mike Hague pushing him for the starting spot this spring, where did that leave Mees?
"You just have to battle back and go out there and play like you think you can," said Mees. "With Coach Howell, there's a new attitude and a new focus. It helps you a lot having a coach like him because you know if you're playing well that he'll reward you for it."
Mees is the backup at strong safety, currently having beat out expected backup Jray Galea'i for the spot currently.
"He works hard and he does whatever we ask of him," Howell said about Mees. "He's smart, he's a really good tackler and he communicates well. He just knows what to do, and he's someone who will help us this year."
Overall, with the secondary coming into focus, there's a lot of confidence going forward.
"We all feel that we can lead this defense," Eason said about his position group. "We're confident. We have a great coach, great players and a great attitude. We just have to keep focused and keep pushing each other and we'll lead this defense. I really believe that. We obviously have great linebackers and they'll lead us too, but we're not going to sit back and let them do the work. We want to lead with our play as well, and I think we will."
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