PROVO BYU defensive lineman Jan Jorgensen sees similarities between the 2006 Cougar defense and the one that will take the field this fall.
"It's just like two years ago. We had an experienced offense and on defense we only had a couple of starters back," said Jorgensen, a first-team All-Mountain West Conference performer last season. "We ended up having the best defense in the conference. This year, we will be very solid. We have to be smart and know our assignments."
With a veteran offense returning in 2008 10 starters are back, including four first-team All-MWC honorees the key to the Cougars' fortunes could lie in the defense, which lost eight starters.
Certainly, there are question marks about the defense, but that's nothing new for BYU. Two years ago, the Cougars had linebacker Cameron Jensen and numerous unproven or inexperienced players surrounding him. Additionally, BYU switched from a 3-3-5 defensive scheme to a 3-4 alignment during the spring of 2006.
But the Cougars' defense ended up helping BYU finish 11-2 and claim the conference championship.
During fall camp last year, BYU lost safeties Dustin Gabriel and David Tafuna to injuries, allowing Corby Hodgkiss to become the starter. Late in the season, another starting safety, Quinn Gooch, suffered a knee injury, shelving him for the season.
Despite those injury woes, the Cougar defense pressed on, leading the MWC in total defense (allowing 307 yards per game) and helping carry BYU to another 11-2 season and another league title.
This year, the Cougars have lost two mainstays from that defense, linebackers Bryan Kehl and Kelly Poppinga, as well as most of the defensive secondary.
"I'm not worried about the secondary," Jorgensen said. "Our secondary will be more athletic than it's been in years. The coaches have the right system, and they have the players in the right places."
Scott Johnson, Brandon Howard, Brandon Bradley and G Pittman are vying for the starting cornerback spots. Bradley is one of the players who have impressed Jorgensen the most during summer workouts. Bradley suffered a serious knee injury just days before fall camp in 2006 but appears poised to make an impact on the field this season.
"It's been a slow process for Brandon," Jorgensen said of the Tallahassee, Fla., native. "He's playing the best that I've ever seen him play."
While Tafuna is also back from his injury, safety Kellen Fowler received valuable experience last season after replacing Gooch. Bingham standout Jordan Pendleton and Snow College transfer Andrew Rich will be factors this season at safety.
At linebacker, David Nixon and Shawn Doman will take over inside. Vic So'oto switched from tight end to linebacker and appears to have nailed down one starting spot on the outside along with Matt Bauman on the opposite side.
Joining Jorgensen on the line is Russell Tialavea, who missed last season due to an injury. Battle-tested Ian Dulan, Brett Denney and Rick Wolfley are among those who will see time on the D-line, along with newcomer Tevita Hola.
Meanwhile, the Cougars have a new defensive coordinator this season. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who handled both head coaching and defensive coordinator duties since 2005, promoted Jaime Hill to the position in January.
But don't expect the defense to change, Jorgensen said.
"It's the same as it's been," he said. "There are a few new blitz packages that we installed in the spring, but the scheme and the philosophy is the same. Coach Mendenhall still has his hands in the defense, so it won't change much."
Jorgensen, a junior from Helper, anchored a defensive unit that ranked No. 9 in the nation in rushing defense a year ago, yielding a little more than 97 yards per game. The Cougars didn't allow a 100-yard rusher until UCLA's Chris Markey rolled up 117 yards in the Las Vegas Bowl in the season-finale. Jorgensen, who has started 26 straight games for BYU, led the conference and was No. 12 nationally with 20 tackles for a combined loss of 115 yards. He also was the league's sack-leader with 14 for minus-91 yards, which was also good for the top 10 in the country.Jorgensen has been named to the preseason watch list for the Rotary Lombardi Award, awarded to the top down lineman in the nation, and he was selected as preseason candidate for the Lott Trophy, given to college football's defensive impact player of the year. He is also one of six Cougars named to the NationalChamps.net list of preseason All-America candidates, along with offensive linemen Ray Feinga and Dallas Reynolds, quarterback Max Hall, tight end Dennis Pitta and running back Harvey Unga.