By Brandon Gurney
PROVO — Depth usually isn't a luxury BYU has at the defensive back position, but this year is proving to be a bit of an anomaly. With the secondary down two defensive starters against Idaho, both Craig Bills and Robbie Buckner filled in at free safety and at field corner, respectively, and the defense didn't miss a beat.
Both players acquitted themselves nicely, with Buckner recording an interception and providing tight coverage throughout, while Bills led the team in tackles with six and forced a fumble. With Jordan Johnson expected to return this week, Buckner will assume his backup role, but Bills will likely start the rest of the way in light of Joe Sampson's dismissal.
"Obviously everyone wants to start, but when I heard Joe (Sampson) was suspended and I'd get the start, I was just sad," Bills said. "We're a brotherhood here and whenever we lose anyone it's sad. We miss Joe bad, but it's now my responsibility to step up and help the team."
Fortunately for Bills — and for the team — he's hardly new to the position, playing immediately as a true freshman and then again as a freshly returned missionary. Bills has played a consistent role as the team's nickel back this year and has logged time at both safety spots.
As far as seeing every rep at the position goes, coach Bronco Mendenhall was pleased with what he saw from Bills.
"I don't think it was a game where (Bills) was highlighted or featured a lot, but he did his job well and he tackled well," Mendenhall said. "I have a lot of confidence with how he plays."
Idaho didn't provide all that stern of a test, but that will change this week with BYU poised to face a prolific San Jose State passing attack. The Spartans, who throw for 325 yards per game, are ranked ninth nationally.
"I'm anxious for the challenge," Bills said about this week's game. "Anytime we face a passing team like that, we get excited. It's a great chance for us to prove ourselves as a good secondary and we love challenges like San Jose State's offense."
Buckner recognizes that his playing time will likely be cut severely this week, but will always be grateful for his chance to start in his last home game as a Cougar.
"Jordan is a good friend, so it was hard not having him out there, but I couldn't help but feel it was sort of destiny for me to get out there in the last home game and I was excited about it," he said.
Buckner left the team earlier this year due to his diagnosis of testicular cancer, but as the cancer regressed, he returned to the team right before the start of the season. His final year has generally consisted of special teams work and scrub backup duty, but Buckner made the most of his last hurrah at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
In the second half, Buckner recorded his first career interception after muffing an easy would-be interception early in the game.
"I guess that's why I don't play receiver," quipped Buckner about not picking off a pass thrown right in his hands. "It was coming right to me, but I like a little challenge, I guess. You don't get those opportunities very often, but when you get them you have to take advantage of them and luckily I got two (opportunities) and I got that last one."
Overall, Mendenhall was impressed with the play of his senior fill-in at field corner.
"He did really well," Mendenhall said. "He did get beat on one pass — a double-move where he actually read it and was on top of it, but it was just under thrown and the guy came back and caught it. He played hard and assignment sound, so I was impressed."
Cougars on the air
BYU (6-4) at SJSU (8-2)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company