PROVO Jaime Hill has finally assembled enough bodies to create competition among his corners in BYU's defense.
It may be the feature that stands out early in BYU's fall camp.
Without competition for starting jobs, it's tough to push and pull and create enough challenges for guys to battle one another. You tiptoe around injuries, afraid you'll lose somebody. Now, Hill's got a little depth not a a ton of it but enough to run a hard and productive practice.
Since 2004, when the Cougars lost nearly a dozen freshmen to off-the-field problems, most of them defensive players, talent and depth have been scarce in the secondary. That left a void in filling out depth charts, and at the end of last season it led to Bronco Mendenhall and Hill fielding a secondary with four athletes who were initially walk-ons.
"I think we're the only Division I program in the country starting four walk-ons," Hill said last December before the bowl game against UCLA.
This week, Mendenhall and Hill might be seeing the first fruits of depth in the secondary, albeit inexperienced and raw.
Three of four corners vying for starting spots are recruits signed out of high school with the exception of Scott Johnson from Timpview, and he earned a grant-in-aid after returning from an LDS mission. The others are Brandon Bradley, G Pittman and Brandon Howard.
Right now, Johnson and Howard are running with the first unit, but Hill refuses to place his guys on a depth chart and says practices so far without major hitting and bodies flying around mean little.
Still, the last two days, Johnson, Bradley and Howard have got their hands on a lot of passes against a veteran Cougar offense led by quarterback Max Hall. The defense appears quicker than a year ago, but it may be Hill has players reacting quicker, taking more chances and playing with confidence.
"I think they're progressing really well," said Hill on Thursday, the first day the team donned pads. "Our biggest challenge is the issue of being physical enough so when they have the opportunities to make plays, they make those plays.
"The whole thing is about making it competitive. In years past, we haven't made it competitive enough for people to have to make plays to play. Today, we struggled a little bit. We've had a couple of good days in a row, but we got tired, got down on ourselves, and were hanging our heads a little bit. The offense got going a little on us today."
Hill refused to single out individual play either for praise or criticism to a group of reporters filed around him. "We don't have a depth chart; it's just guys playing positions. I don't talk about individuals. What we talk about all the time is if a play comes your way, if you're getting attacked, you have to make a play. You don't make every play; you make your play from where you are being attacked."
Howard, who knocked down a pass intended for Michael Reed, said he doesn't believe this year's defense or secondary is any faster than a year ago. "It's a bout the same. Kayle Buchanan ran a 4.4 and that's pretty quick. Ben Criddle was very quick. We had guys who were deceptively quick."
What looks like a fast defense one that has been surprisingly stingy during drills in shorts and helmets is the approach emphasized by Hill since spring drills, said Howard. It's getting hands on passes and making plays quicker at the point of attack.
"That's one thing we've tried to focus on coming into fall, especially me," said Howard. "I just have to go out and make more plays and get after it, go for it. We haven't been satisfied with making the tackle after five yards; we want to put them back on the line of scrimmage."
Johnson, who is locked in a battle with Bradley, said the defense can do better than it showed on Thursday. "This is the first time we went at this pace, and I think we were a little sluggish today. There's just little things, closing the gap, keeping the net, things we need to work on, but we'll get there."
Johnson said the group of corners does not see competition created by Hill as a chore of beating one another up for a job. "It's more like all of us learning together to get better knowing the system."
Since Saturday, Johnson and company have knocked down a lot of passes, and safeties and corners have come up with interceptions."It's more skill and technique than it is jumping on the offense, knowing what they're going to do," said Johnson. "It's more understanding the game of football, seeing a thing here or there in what an offense is going to do. Our offense is always mixing it up, so it's hard to get a rhythm out there against them. But coach Hill has done a great job of teaching us what to see in an actual game."
First down: BYU donned full pads for the first time during fall camp on Thursday, though contact was limited. The Cougars practiced in front of 568 fans in the first open practice. Coach Bronco Mendenhall the play was cleaner than it had been on Wednesday.
Head-turner: Running back J.J. DiLuigi juked his way to a couple of impressive runs, and wide receiver Luke Ashworth hauled in a diving catch during 11-on-11 drills.
Injury report: No new significant injuries.