Spring Preview: The Secondary

TBS' "Man on the Spot" - Brandon Gurney- finishes his preview of the BYU defense by reviewing the secondary. The G-man talks about the outlook of the Corner-, Cougar- and Kat-back positions.

BYU's safeties, and secondary as a whole, are unique in how they play and in how they are utilized as Cougar fans have come to know during Coach Mendenhall's tenure as defensive coordinator. Mendenhall's safeties aren't content to supply inside and deep coverage on passing plays on most downs, but instead are used as pass-rushers more than most defensive systems.

Mendenhall's secondary must be versatile and well-versed on the unique coverages and schemes he runs. It is the way Mendenhall uses his secondary and specifically his safeties which makes his version of the 3-3-5 so unique.

This is the first year since he's been here at BYU that he'll have to break in a relatively new corps of safeties and a new Cougarback. While BYU's existing safeties are talented, they lack experience for the most part.

SAFETIES:

VOIDS:

Aaron Francisco – BYU's mainstay in the defensive backfield since Mendenhall's arrival two years ago. Francisco's presence in the middle of the football field will be hard to fill. He patrolled the middle of the field like a bully while providing great run support.

Jon Burbidge – Don't underestimate the loss of this player. While his physical skills may not have jumped out at you, his knowledge and leadership should have. He was a leader on defense and always seemed to know where he should be and how to make plays in general. Making up for Burbidge's loss will not be easy.

PARTS:

Spencer White – 6'1" 185 Sr. White returns as BYU's only returning starter at the safety/Kat position. White is a solid defender who Mendenhall can depend on. He really came on toward the end of the season and made some great plays. He'll only improve this spring and will be looked upon as a leader.

He's Mendenhall's type of guy having come to BYU as a walk-on before earning his scholarship. White is an important mainstay in the defensive backfield and will be called upon early to show the newer guys the ropes.

KC Bills – 6'1" 220 So. Bills will be looked at to replace Francisco at the critical Cougarback position. Bills has already proven his ability to make plays, having shown his stuff at linebacker during his freshman year. Bills possesses good speed which allows him to be moved to the Cougarback position.

Bills would have played plenty last season while testing the waters in Mendenhall's unique secondary schemes had he not gone down with a season-ending shoulder injury in August. Now he's fully recovered and looks to make an impact. Bills has the type of ability not to be merely an adequate replacement but a star and primary play-maker on defense. He'll be someone to watch very closely come spring ball.

Dustin Gabriel – 6'1" 202 So. Gabriel got his feet wet toward the end of last season and fared well. He's someone who has always shown well in practice and who the secondary coaches have expressed a lot of confidence in. He'll get his chance to start and at the very least be part of the regular Kat rotation this coming year.

David Tafuna – 6'2" 205 So. Everything that is said about Gabriel can be said about Tafuna. They have equal size and the same amount of experience while both being young sophomores in the program. Tafuna and Gabriel are often hard to tell apart on the practice field and Tafuna, like Gabriel, looks to be a major fixture in the regular Kat rotation starting this spring.

Quinn Gooch – 6'1" 190 So. Gooch is a guy who made a big impact during his first spring practice and was slated to be Francisco's backup before enduring a season-ending knee injury. He hasn't been the same since. While he's proven adequate and worthy of playing time, he lacks the burst he showed before going down with his knee injury during last season.

If Gooch can regain his old form, then it's difficult to not see him starting or at least being a major part of the defense. Regardless, Gooch will play as he knows the system and had valuable experience last year when Burbidge went down with injuries for a couple of games.

Nate Hutchinson – 6'3" 190 Fr. Coach Mendenhall went out of his way to mention Hutchinson as a player that has really impressed him and the rest of the coaching staff with his off-season workouts. He stated that he was already ahead of some of those who had been in the program for at least a year.

This is impressive for any recent returned missionary and Hutchinson is sure to get a long look this coming spring if only from the effort he's already shown. But Hutchinson is not merely an effort player, he has great athleticism and size. Hutchinson will make a strong bid to be in the regular rotation and to start this coming spring. Others that will compete for playing time are Aaron Singh 6'0" 210 Fr.; Craig North 5'11" 185 So.; Adam Nelson 6'2" 180 Fr.; Aaron Gordon 6'0" 185 Jr.' Rich Hada 6'0" 180 Sr.; Russell Hill; Leo Christenson 6'3" 198 Jr. are players who will also compete for playing time at safety.

CONCLUSION:

This is an exciting group of players. Francisco and Burbidge may prove more difficult to replace than any other departing players from a season ago, but TBS likes the parts Mendenhall currently has to accomplish this. The talent is there at the safety position and if they can learn the system effectively and if Bills can remain healthy, then this looks to be a strong group and a solid position.

CONERBACKS:

VOIDS:

Brandon Heaney – M endenhall has to use used to looking for Heaney's replacements. It seemed he was always going down with injuries in each of the seasons Mendenhall has been here. It's difficult to state how much BYU will miss Heaney as they've already had to make due without their top cover guy for each of the past two seasons.

Micah Alba – Todd Watkins said that Alba would be one of the best cover guys in the country had he been four inches taller. Alba gave it all he had and probably should never have seen the football field due to his size, but he overcame it with great effort. Alba was a very solid cover guy whose effort and play will be difficult to replace.

PARTS:

Nate Soelberg – 6'0" 172 Sr. Soelberg saw plenty of playing time last season and had some good moments while taking his lumps as well. Soelberg is a capable corner who can burn with the best of them. He'll be a major part at corner this coming spring as he comes in as the only player with any real experience at the position. BYU will have to rely heavily on his play.

Kayle Buchanan – 6'1" 190 So. Buchanan surprised many by nabbing the second-string slot prior to last season as a walk-on. He didn't play much and we've yet to really see his capabilities. He was very consistent in practices a year ago and will be leaned upon heavily this spring as there just aren't that many options at the corner position.

Oneil Howell – 5'11" 175 Sr. Howell begins his final season and looks to be a mainstay at the corner position. Consistency is the key with Howell. He's been great at times in practice in shutting down receivers and lost at other times. He's been through all the rigors of being in the system for over 3 years and looks to break through this season starting with spring ball next week.

Chris Hale – 5'9" 175 Sr. Yes, Hale has made the switch to shore up a very thin cornerback corps for his final season as a Cougar. Hale has shown well in off-season workouts and definitely has the speed to be an effective corner. He'll for sure be one to watch this spring as he tries out a new position.

Others who will be competing at cornerback include Ryan Beck 5'10" 180 Sr. and Dan Richards 5'8" 180 So.

CONCLUSION:

Hold your breath and hope for the best. Look for some of those listed as safety prospects to get a look at playing corner this coming spring. If none of them do get a look, then that could mean that those listed as cornerback options are getting it done. Soelberg needs to be very good to carry this group as the inexperience and lack of depth are a bit concerning at first glance. If BYU can find a consistent group of cornerbacks, then this defense looks to be an outstanding group.


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