Any review of BYU's secondary this season must start with "Cougarback" Aaron Francisco. Francisco, an All-MWC performer last season, is entering his final season in Provo and hopes for his best season yet after an already impressive three-year stint as a Cougar.
Francisco occupies possibly the most critical position in Mendenhall's defense. His strength lies in his linebacker-like run support and the sure tackling he provides as an intimidating presence across the middle.
Moreover, he can lay the lumber to unsuspecting wide receivers running crossing routes in his territory. Just ask San Diego State's J.R. Tolver, who was knocked senseless by Francisco out of a game against BYU.
Francisco will likely be flanked on one side by "Katback" Jon Burbidge, the former walk-on who has become a mainstay in BYU's secondary the past couple of seasons.
Burbidge is very dependable and great coverage defender. He is also very effective blitzing from the edge.
On the other flank will likely be converted linebacker K.C. Bills, coming off an impressive true freshman campaign last year where he rotated regularly with middle linebacker starter Mike Tanner.
The fact that Bills was switched to "Kat" is a testament to his superior skills and athleticism. He has excellent speed and had trouble keeping his weight up much of last season.
The loss of "Kat" standout James Allen to a Honor Code violation probably necessitated the move for Bills and is in keeping with Mendenhall's commitment to play his top 11 players at the same time.
Bills may also see some action at linebacker, but this is an excellent defensive personnel move, especially in light of Allen's loss.
In a revealing in-depth article about the mechanics of Mendenhall's scheme, TotalBlueSports.com contributing writers John Harmston and John Root wrote, "The most unusual feature is the use of two strong safeties called ‘Katbacks' or ‘Kats,' who are often near the line of scrimmage and are used to contain the outside by either pass rushing against offensive tackles or taking on lead blockers out of the backfield.
"This versatility," they continued, "means the ‘Kats' are often the toughest, most athletic players on the field. They often go unnoticed, but end up making noise with their sack statistics.
"The ‘Kats' in his defense are most similar to the traditional strong safety. They drop back into pass coverage and line up closer to the line of scrimmage than the free safety (Cougarback) plays. They are jacks-of-all trades when it comes to their skills.
"Unlike a traditional strong safety, they are taught pass rushing against the offensive line as well. No matter their size, they are expected to get around the corner on offensive tackles and sack the quarterback often. In addition, they will drop back into coverage in both man and zone (deep) coverage.
"The ‘Kats' are called on to do pretty much everything that every other position on the team does. In this defense, they develop the best all-around skills, having to learn pass rush moves as well as good pass coverage technique. ‘Kats' don't need the typical size of a strong safety (200-210-pound range), but they do need to be tough," Harmston and Root wrote.
My dark horse at safety is Quinn Gooch. Gooch had as impressive a spring camp in 2003 as Bills, but was sidelined for the season with an ACL injury before fall camp began.
All Gooch did during his first practice was lockdown the backup Cougarback responsibilities. Gooch spent all of last season rehabilitating his knee. He could have even played toward the end of the season, but it would have wasted a redshirt year. Gooch has good size and great athleticism. Look for Gooch to contribute substantially this fall.
A few newcomers will likely see game action at safety this season. They include Dustin Gabriel and David Tafuna, both returning from LDS missions, along with high school standouts Karland Bennett and Billy Skinner. In addition, junior college transfer Gary Lovely may also be earmarked for backup Cougarback duties. Although none have Div. 1 game experience, all are capable enough to provide needed depth and playing time this fall.
Gabriel and Tafuna were highly-prized recruits before they left on their missions and both are anxious to contribute as soon and as much as possible.
Lovely is considered possibly the "sleeper and steal" from this year's recruiting class since he will be a sophomore in eligibility with four years to play three. Most colleges planning on recruiting him were expecting him to attend junior college again this fall. Despite his lean 210 pound frame, he was still impressive as a junior college defensive lineman.
Depending on his progress in fall camp, Lovely may also be slotted to play at linebacker because of his speed, strength and sure tackling skills.
Spencer White looks like the backup that will see the most playing time. A walk-on, White had a very good spring practice outing and started in the Blue & White spring scrimmage. There has been talk of White possibly moving to cornerback, but he will provide needed backup in the safety ranks.
Other backup's to watch out for include Joel Theler, Adam Nelson and Craig North.
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