Defensive Front Six Will Be BYU's 2004 Strength

There was absolutely no surprise the BYU defense excelled last Saturday in the annual Blue & White spring game. What was surprising is how dominant the defense still looked with five, possibly six, likely starters this fall sidelined by injuries for the preseason matchup – <b>Brady Poppinga, Brandon Heaney, Manaia Brown, Daniel Marquardt, K.C. Bills</b> and JC transfer <b>Justin Luettgerodt</b>.

The defensive line starters were sophomore tackle Justin Carlson-Maddux manning the middle, flanked by sophomore Michael Marquardt and senior John Denney on either side of him.

Carlson-Maddux was serviceable, making several tackles. Denney made an immediate impact recording a sack on the first series while also accounting for several quarterback hurries.

In Mendenhall's defensive scheme, defensive tackles receive the fewest tackles because their job is essentially to plug the middle and draw double or triple teams in the middle to allow the ends, linebackers and safeties to pressure quarterbacks from the outside.

Marquardt, released less than six months ago from his LDS mission, was the most impressive defensive line player with three sacks.

Defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall exclusively used his base three-man front throughout the game, but switched the positioning of his defensive line with Denney and DE Shaun Nua getting reps at nose guard.

Impressive at middle linebacker was Ricks College sophomore transfer Cameron Jensen, who ended the game with three unassisted tackles, two tackles for loss (TFL), two assisted tackles, and one sack. Lightly recruited out of high school, Jensen's played one impressive year at Ricks and was offered scholarships by Oklahoma, UCLA, Arizona State and BYU immediately after his mission.

Jensen was particularly effective in filling gaps and patrolling the middle of the field. He's a natural middle linebacker who may land the starting slot in September against USC. His most impressive play was JC wide receiver speedster, Michael Morris, received the ball on a reverse. Jensen caught him from behind for a 10-yard loss. Jensen demonstrated he has the speed and strength to be a very effective middle linebacker for years to come.

He also hurried the quarterback on occasion, causing several incomplete passes. By my book, Jensen was the defensive player of the game.

Playing alongside Jensen on the starting linebacking unit was junior Bryant Atkinson and senior Paul Walkenhorst.

Atkinson was all over the field during the first few series. He filled the gaps effectively and shed oncoming blocks from offensive linemen and running backs effectively. He had two unassisted tackles, two assisted tackles with one sack and one tackle for a loss.

Walkenhorst, a starter since his freshman year at BYU, accounted for one sack on the first series and rushed the quarterback effectively throughout the game. For the game, he had three unassisted tackles which included two tackles for a loss and one sack. What made Walkenhorst such a great strongside linebacker in Ken Schmidt's (former Cougar defensive coordinator) old scheme was his ability to shed offensive line blocks.

After sitting out last season because of injury, Mendenhall has the luxury of using Walkenhorst in different alignments as he did with Brady Poppinga last season. At times, Walkenhorst lined up on the line of scrimmage, effectively becoming a fourth defensive lineman throughout the game. Look for this to continue throughout the season. Walkenhorst looked impressive and appeared to be fully integrated into Mendenhall's new scheme, which was promising.

Meanwhile, sophomore walk-on Adney Reid, a sibling to former Cougar standouts Spencer and Gabriel Reid, continued to impress with three assisted tackles.

What makes Mendenhall's defense unique is his utilization of his three safeties. Starting at safety with the first team were senior Aaron Francisco, the designated "Cougarback," with senior Jon Burbidge and junior Spencer White manning the two "Katback" positions. Burbidge had three unassisted tackles, one assisted tackle, one sack and one pass batted down for the day. White had one unassisted tackle and six assisted tackles.

There was more blitzing by the three safeties during this game than most of last season. Francisco rarely blitzed last season from his pivotal Cougarback position, but he was sent frequently throughout Saturday's game. Francisco, as usual, was outstanding. Few passes were made on him patrolling the middle of the secondary and he had a nice knock down of a pass deep over the middle that was intended for a tight end.

However, the biggest area of defensive concern for the Cougars this fall manifested itself during Saturday's scrimmage: Cornerbacks. With senior Brandon Heaney out, junior Nathan Soelberg and senior Micah Alba were the starters. The hope is some JC transfers and high school standouts, who report later this summer, may be good enough to contribute his fall in the secondary.

Soelberg, a sprinter on BYU's track team and former Granger High gridiron star, had some good defensive moments, but he was clearly outmatched by JC All-American transfer wide receiver Todd Watkins, a sure-fire future BYU offensive star. Using his 4.28/40 speed and practiced moves, Watkins beat Soelberg deep five times during the game, but he still ended the game with two unassisted tackles and one pass batted down.

The good news is Watkins' game-breaking offensive ability will only make Soelberg and other Cougar cornerbacks even better in practice in preparation for the real competition this fall.

Alba fared a little better with two unassisted tackles and four assisted tackles. He had a very nice tackle in the open field on running back Naufahu Tahi, holding him to no gain after he bounced it outside on an off-tackle run.

Senior defensive end Shaun Nua played with the second team, knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage and mounted an effective pass rush throughout the game.

Redshirt linebacker Aaron Wagner, a transfer from Washington State, had several nice plays and looked extremely athletic. Wagner would undoubtedly make the two-deep linebacking rotation if he did not have to sit this season because of NCAA transfer rules.

Others who stood out included sophomore linebacker, Justin Williams, who knocked down a pass at the line of scrimmage. Freshman defensive back Quinn Gooch played impressively with the second unit and delivered the defensive play of the game when he intercepted a Jason Beck pass, returning it 40 yards for a touchdown. Freshman safety, Joel Thelar, also had a nice open field tackle on Jason Beck on an option play for a loss.

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