Secondary Cross Training

With the loss of senior safety Quinn Gooch due to a leg injury, BYU's defensive secondary is experiencing a few personnel modifications. Coach Mendenhall and Coach Hill are once again working their magic to ensure the secondary stays competitive despite the many setbacks.

When BYU's defensive secondary lost 6-foot-1-inch, 213-pound senior safety Dustin Gabriel, who underwent season-ending leg surgery, second-stringer David Tafuna stepped in admirably. However, the 6-foot-1-inch, 206-pound senior would also soon be sidelined after suffering a season-ending foot injury during fall camp.

From out of the shadows came third-string senior safety Corby Hodgkiss, who stepped onto the field and would completely erase the fans' fears of a secondary being torched by opposing quarterbacks in a passing conference. Now for the third time in one season, the secondary must go through another changing of the guard, this time to compensate for the loss of Quinn Gooch.

"You know, losing Quinn is a big loss to our team," said junior safety Kellen Fowler. "He's a really experienced player and knows where to be in the right spots. He's played excellent back there and my heart goes out to him. I feel terrible about the loss of a teammate."

With the loss of Gooch, the 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pound Fowler stepped onto the field in his place. As BYU's newest member of the secondary, all eyes will now be upon him as he now shares in the responsibilities of being the quarterback of the secondary.

"This is an opportunity for me to come in," said Fowler. "Throughout the year, everyone has been preparing in case they're called upon. This will be my opportunity to come in and make some plays and help my team win. It's kind of a bittersweet thing for me personally. Obviously seeing a good friend of mine like Quinn go down really hurts, but this is a good opportunity for me.

"Obviously, everyone wants to be out there to help the team win, and I've had that opportunity to do that on special teams. I've worked really hard with that opportunity to do my best. Now I have another role and it's more of a visible challenge, but the play-to-play battle is the same: to go out there and line up across from your opponent and make sure you fulfill your responsibility to help your team win."

Fowler was out in full force with the first-team defense during Monday's practice session. However, BYU's coaches are not simply stopping there when it comes to plugging in a player at a specific spot. It would appear Coach Mendenhall has taken a page out of former BYU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes' book in cross-training a few of his athletes for experience and depth purposes.

"I was in there today taking reps with the first group," said Fowler. "As far as the secondary goes, they're also having Ben Criddle take some reps [at safety] and Scott Johnson take some reps to make sure we have some good depth. We obviously don't want any more injuries, but if there is we're confident that we will have guys ready to come in and play. All of our guys in the secondary are smart, talented and hungry for a chance to play."

Fowler is expected to receive the bulk of the safety responsibly in place of Gooch.

"Kellen Fowler is a little bit different than Gooch," said inside linebacker Kelly Poppinga. "He's not as experienced as Gooch, but he's really smart like Gooch. Kellen is very smart both on and off the field and he knows the defense really well. That is one thing I noticed this summer during seven-on-seven drills, and he knew the defense better than anyone else. Gooch probably knew the defense the best, but to be honest with you, Kellen was probably just right behind him. The only thing he lacks is experience, but he came into that [TCU] game last Thursday and played great. He didn't make any mistakes, he didn't give up any big plays and he did what he had to do to help this team win. We didn't miss a beat with him in there. He's going to get better with more experience with these next four games, and then next season he's going to have that with him going into next season to help lead this defense."

BYU fans may remember when cornerbacks Ben Criddle and Kayle Buchanan went down with injuries last year and safety Cole Miyahira stepped in during the Las Vegas Bowl to cover the same Oregon wide receivers that are currently part of an offense ranked in the top five.

"We've had a lot of guys go down at safety specifically," said Fowler. "The coaches want to try and cross-train some of our corners, so that way we have guys that can step in and know what they're doing if ever they're called upon."

If Criddle or another cornerback were ever called upon to man the middle of the Cougar secondary, Fowler feels there is plenty of up-and-coming talent with the intelligence to step right in at the cornerback position.

"Like I said, we have guys that are smart and talented," Fowler said. "We have guys waiting in the wings for their opportunity, such as Brandon Howard and Andre Saulsberry, who are ready to play and hungry to play. These guys are all talented athletes and we have confidence that if called upon, we will all get the job done if ever the situation should present itself."

It's hard to argue with Fowler on the descriptions he gives his fellow teammates in BYU's secondary. So far on the season, BYU's secondary has held opponents to almost half the passing yardage of the Cougar offense, and almost 100 passing yards less per game than BYU, despite the many losses to the Cougar secondary. So what's the secret?

"I feel like it is a great tribute to our coaching staff for putting in a great system here at BYU, as well as recognizing the type of athletes that we have here," said Fowler. "We have a lot of smart guys here on this team and they've recognized that and have put the right guys in the right spots that can learn and play specific positions affectively on the field. In part it is due to a good defensive scheme and the coaches being able to develop the talent within those positions."

The mark of a great program is not necessarily defined by great athletes, but rather how athletes - from the first-string players all the way down to those on the scout team - are developed within the program.

"You have to tribute our success to our coaches and this program," said Poppinga. "Coach Hill has those guys ready. If you go all the way down right to the scout team defense and those redshirt freshmen, those guys know what they're supposed to do. At any time, they can be called up, and you know what, they'll step right in and do what needs to be done just like we've done in the past. Our coaching staff has us prepared in every way to step in when needed, and I think everyone can see that by how guys have stepped in and played when the opportunity has presented itself."

Paying Tribute To Senior Safety Quinn Gooch

Senior linebackers Bryan Kehl and Poppinga pay tribute to their teammate Quinn Gooch. Both talk about what it was like playing with Gooch on the field and what he brought to the team both as a person and as a player.

Bryan Kehl

Kelly Poppinga


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