PROVO — The pickings in the defensive backfield have often been slim at BYU when beginning a new practice session, however, those pickings look to be relatively plentiful entering this coming fall practice session.
For a secondary looking to replace three of its starters from a year ago, that’s obviously a good thing. While there appears to be some good talent to choose from, the remaining talent is relatively inexperienced as a whole.
Such a prospect is making defensive backs coach Nick Howell cautiously optimistic.
“It’s going to be a great opportunity for a lot of guys to make names for themselves,” he said. “They’ve shown some good ability in practices, and that’s exciting, but we’ll learn soon enough if they can keep that up and make those same plays during games.”
Travis Uale stands as the lone returning starter at the free safety position, while graduating field corner Brian Logan, boundary corner Brandon Bradley and strong safety Andrew Rich need to be replaced.
While most years see one or maybe two legitimate options to compete at defensive back, this year those options look to be greater.
“There seems to be about three guys at each position that we think can legitimately compete for a starting spot,” said Howell.
The hottest battle continuing from spring practices could be at field corner. Logan left some big shoes to fill, but there looks to be at least three quality options to replace him as a starter.
During spring practices, junior Robbie Buckner (5-foot-10, 176 pounds) and freshman Jordan Johnson (5-10, 175) were “neck and neck” for the starting job according to head coach Bronco Mendenhall. They’ll continue that competition into the fall practice session.
“Robbie has been a solid player for a while now,” said Howell. “Most fans don’t know about him, but he’s been through the grinder, and he works very hard and has some good talent, and had a great spring for us.
"Jordan Johnson is still learning about what it takes to play in a coach Mendenhall-style defense, but he has as much ability as anyone on the team to play some good cornerback for us.”
The other option involves moving senior Corby Eason (5-8, 172) over to start at field corner: “Corby knows every position and filled in very well for Brian (Logan) when he was hurt last year,” said Howell.
Eason played primarily at boundary corner last season, rotating in frequently to spell Bradley, and could very well find himself starting there this year. The other primary option at boundary is JC transfer Preston Hadley (6-0, 200), who got some very good experience during spring.
“He’ll battle there with Corby, and we have some good options with Preston showing well in spring," Howell said. "I don’t know yet if we’ll keep Corby at boundary, move him over to field, or what right now, but it’s nice to have options.”
Another option at boundary is junior DaQuan Everett (6-3, 210).
“DaQuan has come along well," said Howell. "He understands our concepts and he’s bought into the system, and he has a lot of ability."
Coming out of the spring, the starting job looks to be 6-2, 210-pound sophomore Daniel Sorensen’s to lose. He battled hard with fellow sophomore Jray Galeai (6-0, 179) and will continue to do so throughout the August practice session.
“Daniel did a great job, but Jray is continuing to push him, which is what you want at any position,” said Howell. “I like how both players competed and hopefully they continue to push each other into the season.”
Junior Carter Mees (6-0, 195) is another option that Cougar fans may have forgotten about.
“Carter has been with us for a while, but has had some injury problems," Howell said. "He’s someone who could help us out a lot at either strong safety or at free safety."
As mentioned, senior Uale returns as the lone starter in the defensive backfield. Uale improved quite dramatically with his play during last season, and has the coach’s trust.
“I could leave today, right now, and give up the defense and the coaching to Travis, and they wouldn’t miss a beat,” said Howell. “It’s so important for our free safety to know the defense inside and out and understand how to position guys with what the offense does, and Travis does that as well as anyone.”
Despite starting down the stretch last season, Uale was being pushed, and will continue to be pushed by junior Mike Hague (5-10, 190), who switched over from running back.
“Mike showed very well in spring, and will provide that competition level for Travis, and will push him which is what you want,” said Howell. “He understands what we’re doing out there, and it’s been fun to watch his progress.”
Sorting out Sampson
There is a lot of intrigue surrounding junior-college transfer Joe Sampson heading into fall practices. Sampson wasn’t able to transfer midyear, as was the plan, and wasn’t able to show up on campus until mid June, but presents an interesting option nonetheless.
“I haven’t been able to coach him or even see him workout yet,” said Howell about the 6-0, 205-pound defensive back. “I’m not yet sure where he’ll help us this year, or if he’ll help us at all, but I’m optimistic about his chances based on my conversations with him and from what I’ve seen from him on film.”
Coaches have made mention that learning how to play at safety in the current defensive system isn’t an easy task. While the learning process for strong safety isn’t as accelerated as it is at free safety, it’s a challenge.
Given Sampson’s limited time in the program, one may be given to believe that the learning process would be too steep for him to legitimately compete at safety, but Howell would disagree with that notion.
“Through my conversations with him and from his film, I can easily see that Joe is someone that understands concepts,” he said. “For some players, it’s enough just to learn their own assignments, and do those assignments well, but it’s another thing to understand concepts within the entire defense.
"Joe has that, and you have to have that in order to play an effective safety, so no, absolutely not, I won’t say that he can’t compete at safety because he can and that’s why we brought him in.”
Sampson has experience playing cornerback, and could play there if that is where he fits best.
Overall, Howell is excited for the prospects of this year’s defensive backfield. While he isn’t seeing a lot of game experience among them, he’s seeing other things.
“It’s a real fun group, and a group eager to learn and compete,” he said. “They all seem to be aware of the opportunities they have with so many open spots, and they’re thriving with that. We have some good talent that is pushing each other, and will continue to push each other, and it’s an exciting thing to have as a position coach. It’s what you want.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company