Indeed, the Cougars must replace both 2003 cornerbacks starters in Jernaro Gilford and Chad Barney.
Heaney suffered multiple painful shoulder separations of both shoulders two years ago during games and even while he slept. He underwent major surgery last year and did not participate in full contact drills this spring to speed up his recovery. He is expected to be fully healthy by fall camp next month.
Why is Heaney so critical to this unit? First and foremost, it is his experience. He played extensively at cornerback slot in 2001 and most of 2002. Heaney, a senior, is an exceptional cover man and commands respect as an inspirational player-mentor who leads by courageous example.
Heaney is also a fierce competitor who has proven time and again that he can and will play through immense pain, willingly sacrificing himself for the team. His defensive teammates and coaches know they can depend on Heaney to consistently give his best effort.
The likely starter opposite Heaney will be sophomore track star speedster Nathan Soelberg, a former high school wide receiver who is developing into an effective cornerback.
Soelberg saw limited action last season. Injury prevented Soelberg from playing as much as coaches wanted. He is fully healthy now and has been working hard in off-season conditioning in preparation for the season. Soelberg's biggest asset is his speed 6-0 height.
The most intriguing prospect that may challenge for Soelberg's would-be starting slot is highly regarded junior college transfer Greg Lovely. Lovely comes in with fairly sizable hype, but hasn't played Div. 1 football. Highly recruited by major colleges out of high school, Cougar fans can only hope he emerges as effective as former BYU junior college transfers Brian Gray and Omarr Morgan.
Other Cougar veterans pushing to insert themselves into the "gunner" equation are senior Micah Alba, junior Ryan Beck and "katback" junior Spencer White, in a pinch. Alba has good technique, speed and exerts great effort, but is hindered somewhat by his 5-8 height. He has been effective in a backup role despite his size disadvantage.
Then there is the enigmatic junior O'Neil Howell, who has looked brilliant in some practices and lost in others. Howell was switched to "katback" last season, but is listed as a cornerback in the BYU off-season roster. Howell is capable of solid play, but must do so consistently.
This lack of solid depth illustrates why Heaney's continuing health is critical in determining the impact and effectiveness of BYU's cornerbacks as a unit this season.
BYU took a calculated gamble and signed one of the country's top cornerback/special team prospects, Eddie Scipio, knowing there was a good chance he would not be academically eligible to play this fall. Scipio is expected to graduate in time to enroll at BYU as a mid-year transfer in January.
Recognizing they are lacking elite-level cornerback talent, the Cougars signed an excellent prep "gunner" in Ibrahim Rashada, who may play himself into the two-deep roster during fall camp. Some have speculated that all-star prep wide receiver Antwaun Harris might be moved to the gunner position, but he is projected to be a game-breaking receiver with excellent moves and speed.
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