Although nothing is permanent at this point, one safety seems to see more time with the first team defense than any other player, and that is 6-foot-1, 196-pound junior Quinn Gooch.
"This fall is going pretty good for me," said the fiery Gooch. "You know you're still out there making some mistakes but you just try and improve everyday. You just try and make the plays that you missed the day before and keep on making the plays that you're making."
Another defensive back who recently returned from serving a mission to Alaska is 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior Kellen Fowler. Although he has a redshirt year to use, Fowler is taking reps with the second string defense along 6-foot-1, 206-pound David Tafuna. Fowler made his presence known early with his aggressive play.
"I've had a nagging injury and I just got the clearance to go full out so now it's time for me to really get in there and show the coaches something good before it's time for us to head on down to Arizona come September 2nd," said Fowler. "I'm just trying to improve my position on the depth charts, and right now all the safety positions seem pretty open and there's a lot of competition going on.
"There are some things shuffling up with some injuries holding people out and some opportunities opening up. Coach Mendenhall loves competition, and he loves it when players are out there competing for a spot. He is one to encourage that and give everyone an open shot to go out there to try and get some playing time. I'm just right there in the mix trying to get as healthy as I can and show them that I believe out there on the field come game day."
One thing veterans like Gooch and Fowler are trying to improve is their knowledge of BYU's new 3-4 defense. According to Gooch, the defense that Coach Bronco Mendenhall has elected to run not only fits the personnel at the linebacker's position, it also fits the personnel in the defensive secondary.
"I just think it allows the DB's to play the pass and it allows the linebackers and the D-line to play the run and get pressure on the ball," Gooch said. "I just think it fits our personnel and who we have on the field a little better than the 3-3-5 did. It allows us to make more plays where they should be made in the passing game.
"I think it fits the safeties a little bit better because we're not in zero coverage every single down, and we're not in single or man to man coverage or blitzing against 300 pound linemen trying to take them on. It fits our personnel better and I think it's a really good fit for us and we should be really good this year."
Fowler came to BYU in 2002 and played under former defensive coordinator Ken Schmidt. In 2003, he had to learn the 3-3-5 defense that new defensive coordinator Coach Mendenhall imported from New Mexico. When Fowler left on his mission after spring practice in 2004, he was listed as the starting KAT safety. Now he has to learn his third defense as a Cougar and work his way up the depth chart once again.
"The 3-4-4 defense is quite a bit different," said Fowler. "There has been a lot of man coverage and close line coverage. There has been a lot of blitzing from the safeties, and so we still have some of that left over from the 3-3-5 defense, but there is a lot more dropping into zone now for us. For me personally it would take me a little more time to really tell if this defense fits my body type or my physical abilities better. I loved the 3-3-5 but even though we play a less aggressive scheme we still have an aggressive attitude towards running to the ball. The mentality that Coach Mendenhall has instilled into this team has in no way been diminished by the change of the defensive scheme."
Since returning home, Fowler noticed another change in the defense as a whole.
"It seems like this defensive unit is really coming together," Fowler said. "Obviously with the way we've seen things through fall camp, we know we have an offense that is going to be excellent. The defense is coming along and we're competing as best as we can. We're still getting some assignments confused from time to time, but it's getting less and less. Coach Hill now tells us, ‘Hey we kind of look like we know what we're doing now.' The defenses that I've played on before were excellent. We had the one defense that was ranked 14th in the country, 8th in pass defense. We really want to bring that back here to BYU."
Cornerback Justin Robinson once commented on how a quicker, more active defensive line up front indirectly helps the defensive secondary. With the offensive line having to move around more to counter the outside and inside moves of a young and active D-line, the quarterback is finding it a bit more difficult to find passing lanes.
"Yeah they help out a lot," said Gooch of the defensive linemen. "When they're stopping the run and getting pressure on the quarterback from different angles it frees us up from having to worry about coming up to make a play. This allows us to concentrate more on the passing game and to focus more on the things we need to focus on. It just eliminates one aspect we as a defensive secondary have to worry about, and allows us to focus more on covering down field. A little pressure goes a long way.
"We're better because Coach Hill is spending more time with us to learn what we're doing. He's coaching us not only on the field but off the field in meetings. We watch every play and we watch every drill and he's constantly coaching, and he's constantly helping us to improve not only the in defense but in understanding what the offense is going to do to you.
"He understands that part of the game really, really well because he's been doing it for a long time, and it's definitely a benefit for us to have him on our side of the ball. He can look at a formation and see what a defense is giving up and this is what an offense is going to do with this formation and this is how we can manipulate the offense. Just having an understanding of all of those processes in your head when you're in a defensive set helps prevent any offense from pulling one over on you."
Fowler echoes Gooch's comments on Coach Hill.
"Coach Hill is a really good coach," said Fowler. "He's a really good technician that knows this defense because he's been running it for several years. In the classroom he's helping us to pick it up, and he's a really intense person on the field. He's intense at times, but he also knows when to have a good time, and it appears we're having a good time, and I've really enjoyed working with him over the fall."
Although Coach Hill is definitely a hands on guy, he can also be vocal coach at times with his secondary unit. Coach Hill is a master technician and expects the most out of his players.
"He gets fired up," Gooch said. "He doesn't want us to be average. He doesn't want us to be just four guys out there playing. He wants us to be the best because we represent him. He wants us to look good because when we're playing above and beyond that represents him as a coach. That's kind of how he goes about his business and I think because of that we'll be better for it."