Not so long ago, BYU had the corners covered like a blanket.
With Omarr Morgan and Tim McTyer manning the cornerback positions, the Cougars capped a 14-1 campaign with a 19-15 victory over Kansas State in the 1997 Cotton Bowl. The duo, who have since moved on to pursue NFL careers, each picked off passes in the finale to up their combined season total to nine. By accounting for almost half of BYU's 21 interceptions, both Morgan and McTyer earned first-team All-WAC honors. Their contributions helped prompt a comment from coach LaVell Edwards that BYU's defense was a good as it's ever been. Emphasis on ever.A season later, however, such praise was nonexistent. Injuries, tragedy and inexperience extracted a painful toll. BYU's defense stumbled along. It took six games for the Cougars to intercept a pass. And the total reached just four by the time a disappointing 6-5 campaign came to an end.
So few and far-between were the interceptions that Edwards had trouble recalling them at fall drills earlier this week.
"Whatever it was," he said of the frequency, "we've certainly got to have more than we did last year."
A cry for help? Perhaps. Fortunately for BYU, junior college transfers Brian Gray and Heshimu Robertson each answered the call. The cornerbacks are expected to be in the starting line-up when the Cougars open the 1998 season Sept. 5 at Alabama.
"They both have athletic ability and good speed," Edwards said while comparing the pair to Morgan and McTyer. "We're anxious to get them going and see how it goes."
Robertson, a sophomore, participated in spring drills and made an immediate impact. He transferred to BYU after picking off six passes for Cerritos College in California, where he was named his team's most valuable defender. Robertson replaces Ben Cook, who started all 11 games last season, at right corner.
Gray, meanwhile, inherits the left side from Morgan, a good friend and former teammate at El Camino Junior College. Morgan repeated All-WAC honors despite missing three games because of an honor code violation. While he was sidelined, the Cougars started injury riddled sophomore Jack Williams (who has since left the program for personal reasons) twice and the late Terrence Harvey once.
The personnel moves played a role in BYU's inability to effectively blitz. And though his squad produced 24 quarterback sacks last season, defensive coordinator Ken Schmidt told the Deseret News last spring that concerns in the secondary forced the Cougars to rush only three players much of the time. With the addition of Robertson and Gray, however, BYU will likely send four on a regular basis and up to four others on occasion. The Cougars return eight starters on defense and sport a defensive front that Edwards said is as deep and talented as any group he's had.
The coach said it's too early to tell if BYU's new cornerbacks fit the bill as well. At this point, Edwards adds, Gray and Robertson are progressing as expected.
"Once we learn the mental things we'll be fine," said Gray, who at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, may be the biggest cornerback the Cougars have ever had. "Physically we're ready. We've got bumps and bruises but that's two-a-days. By the time the season comes around, me and Hash should be ready to roll - 100 percent ready to go."
Gray, who suffered a slight hip pointer on the first day in full pads, said the adjustment to Division I involves an understanding of how quick receivers are at college football's top level. The junior is confident, however, he and Robertson are up to the challenge. Each comes from Mission Conference programs that blitzed a lot.
"Our mindset is to try and not let any passes get caught on us at all," Gray said. "And we look forward to getting more picks (than BYU's four interceptions in 1997) this season. That's for sure."
Five individuals in the WAC had more interceptions than the Cougars did last year. Gray is hopeful to surpass the total himself.
Because of his size, which a BYU staffer said drew the attention of an NFL scout who watched a recent practice, Gray won't be sneaking up on anybody.
"It's always good to have good size like that. Particularly if you can back-pedal and cover. And he's quite physical," Edwards said. "That extra size and heighth obviously helps. We'll just have to wait and see how it all sorts out."
Gray plans to use his physical advantage to disrupt receivers' routes early, many at the line of scrimmage, and force opposing quarterbacks to spend too much time looking at one side of the defense. In turn, Gray hopes his coverage helps BYU's defensive line record more sacks.
As for the comparison to Morgan and McTyer, Gray believes he and Robertson have the potential.
`I believe we could (be as successful)," he said. "There's a lot to learn, but I can see somewhere down the line that we can be that way. That's for sure."
The sooner, the better as far as BYU is concerned.