Coming into spring practice, the biggest question for the BYU Cougars was “Who would be starting in the defensive secondary?” About a third of the way into spring practice, that question has yet to be answered.
Unlike past years, however, this uncertainty is a good thing. Instead of a dearth of talented DBs, the Cougars have more quality DBs than they have positions for. This article will look at the various position battles in the secondary and how things look after six days of practice.
Field Corner: Robbie Buckner 5'10", 176 pounds, Jr. OR Jordan Johnson 5'10", 175 pounds, Fr.
When the first team defense took the field last Monday for the first day of spring practice, Robbie Buckner lined up at field corner. That is, however, no indication that he is considered the starter.
Bronco Mendenhall, when speaking of the position battle between Buckner and Johnson after two days of spring practice, described the two being “neck and neck.” Little has happened in the four practices that followed to differentiate the two. Both have played outstanding and have recorded multiple interceptions and pass break-ups. Based on the information I’ve been able to gather, here is how the two have fared this spring so far:
How will playing time be split between Robbie Buckner and Jordan Johnson at field corner?
Monday, March 14
Buckner: One interception in 7-on-7s that was returned for a TD
Johnson: One interception in 7-on-7s.
Friday, March 15
Buckner: One pass deflection in team play (11 vs. 11) that kept the offense out of the end zone.
Johnson: Was credited with a “big hit”
Monday, March 21
Buckner: Two pass deflections in 7-on-7s and one on third down in the red zone during team play.
Johnson: Returned an interception for a TD in 7-on-7s.
At this point in time I don’t think there is a clear starter. Both Buckner and Johnson have performed extremely well during spring practice and are constantly mentioned when defensive highlights are brought up.
I would not be surprised to see both get significant playing time, possibly splitting downs almost evenly, in order to keep fresh legs in the game. Nick Howell, the Cougars' new secondary coach, has indicated his intention to rotate more in the defensive backfield this season because of the depth he has in those positions and to keep fresh defenders on the field.
Who will start at field corner?
Boundary Corner: Corby Eason 5'8", 172 pounds, Sr. OR Preston Hadley 6', 200 pounds, Jr. OR DeQuan Everett, 6'3", 200 pounds, Jr.
“I really like what I see from Preston Hadley. He’s going to be on the field somewhere—even from one day of practice, I think that’s clear,” Mendenhall said.
The one player who appears to have locked up a starting position in the defensive backfield is Preston Hadley. The only question is: where will he start?
He’s locked up all of the first team reps at boundary corner with Eason recovering from surgery, but what happens when Eason comes back?
I think Eason’s battle for the starting boundary corner will actually be with a guy at a different position. Preston Hadley will most likely start at either boundary corner or free safety. Where Hadley will play will depend greatly on how Eason and and current first team FS Travis Uale perform in practice. The one that plays better at his position will start and Preston will likely start at the other position.
One of Eason’s greatest allies in his bid for a starting sport is DeQuan Everett. Everett is a phenomenal athlete with great abilities, but as of now he is a third-string corner who is unlikely to see significant playing time this year unless something changes.
Behind Uale, there is little depth. Carter Mees's recovery from last year’s shoulder injury is still uncertain. Kori Gaines has been suspended for violating team rules and may or may not return in time for fall camp. Mike Hague might be able to provide some much needed depth, but his quickness and top end speed are not yet up to standard, and he hasn’t played defense since 2005.
If the “battle” between Eason and Uale is close, Eason may win simply because there is more depth at his position.
DeQuan Everett is the biggest enigma at this position. Just about everyone was waiting to hear about his great cover abilities and his incredible athleticism, yet at the moment, he is the No. 3 boundary corner.
Now I recognize that it can be very difficult learning a new defensive system and adjusting to a new environment, so I am not terribly surprised to see him at No. 3 this early in the year. The question will be how well he adjusts and performs in the remaining spring practices and in the fall.
Will he be a bust, a solid contributor or a lock-down corner worthy of All-Conference (if BYU played in a conference) or greater honors? This year, my guess is contributor. I think Everett will need some time to adjust and learn how both the defense and how the team as a whole does things.
If he can do that, I think that 2012 could be a breakout year for him. One of the things that I think could help him is playing time. That is part of the reason I am pulling for Eason to beat out Uale for the aforementioned starting position.
Who will get the most playing time at strong safety?
My guess is that Eason will start, Everett will rotate in and Hadley will start at the free safety spot.
Strong safety: Daniel Sorensen 6'2", 200 pounds, So. OR Jray Galea’i 6’, 179 pounds, So.
This position is the toughest, in my opinion, to analyze because of the lack of information coming out of the spring practices.
Coach Mendenhall said that the two are “fighting” for the starting strong safety position. Some comments by Mike Hague in an interview about his position change from running back to safety seem to indicate that the Galea’i and Sorensen alternate with the first team offense. Those two things are about all I know about that position battle.
In my opinion, it still appears to be wide open. Some might be inclined to think that Sorensen might be in the lead because of his size (he is two inches taller and over 20 lbs. heavier than Galea’i), but I don’t see that.
While size is nice, I think more important is the ability to use that size (aka HIT). Both Sorensen and Galea’i can really hit. Last Friday, one of Galea’i’s hits even made the local newspaper. I anticipate that no matter who ends up starting, the other will receive significant playing time.
Free Safety: Preston Hadley 6', 200 pounds, Jr. OR Travis Uale 6'2", 197 pounds. OR Mike Hague 5'10", 210 pounds, Jr.
Who will start at free safety?
The whole Eason vs. Hadley vs. Uale competition I addressed earlier in the boundary corner section. While I suspect Eason will eventually win the battle vs. Uale for a starting position, Travis is not about to make it easy for him. Uale has two things going for him in his attempt to secure a starting role.
First, he’s healthy. Because Uale is healthy and and Corby Eason is not, Preston Hadley has been playing corner instead of free safety. If Uale had been the one injured, Hadley would be taking first-team reps at his position instead of Eason’s.
Also because he is healthy, Travis is able to maintain his conditioning and make impress coaches with his play, which leads into the following.
Second, last Tuesday after practice, Mendenhall was asked about the competitions in the defensive backfield. His response was: "I've been really impressed with Preston Hadley as a newcomer and a junior college player [from Snow College]. I really like what Travis Uale's doing."
When your defensive coordinator and head coach really like what you are doing, you have a pretty good chance at seeing significant playing time.
Mike Hague’s move to safety, if he turns out to be fast enough, is a great move. With the experience and talent at tailback this year, Hague would hardly ever have seen the field.
How many passing yards will BYU's defense give up per game?
Last year, he played some fullback, but that was mostly because they didn’t have anyone else to do it. The Cougars were really thin at FS and Hague had slimmed down significantly in the off season. Coach Mendenhall noticed the improvements in Hague’s quickness and conditioning, and asked him to switch to defense. Now, instead of a sixth-string running back, he is a second-string safety.
I like Hague’s work ethic and physical style of play. My biggest concern is his top end speed. He was never a particularly fast running back, and in my opinion, free safety requires more speed than running back. On the other hand, he did drop 35 lbs. in the off season to boost his quickness, so it is possible that he may now have/be developing the speed he needs.
I think Hadley will end up at free safety, but Uale appears to be showing significant improvement, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was he who starts while Hadley plays corner. Hague has been taking the steps needed and working really hard to get ready to play in the defensive backfield, but only time will tell if he can develop enough speed and quickness to be effective.
Summary of Entire Defensive Backfield
This defensive backfield may be the deepest and most athletic backfield BYU has ever had. At field corner, Robbie Buckner and Jordan Johnson are proving to be excellent cover guys. No matter who starts, both will see significant playing time.
While Jray Galea’i and Daniel Sorensen aren’t named Andrew Rich, they are hard-working and hard-hitting players who have the athletic abilities to become great in their own right. Theirs is also a battle that may not have any clear resolution, and may not need one. Expect both to see significant playing time this year.
Free safety is a position that needs stability, so I expect who ever ends up starting will get most of the reps. In an effort to put the best players on the field, Preston Hadley will start at either field corner of free safety. His position will depend on who has the best spring and possibly fall camp, Travis Uale or Corby Eason.
Boundary Corner will either be manned by Hadley or Eason with a struggling/adjusting/learning Everett backing them up.