Defense Steps Up to the Challenge

After an inconsistent day on Monday, the Cougar defense came ready to play for a full day of practice on Tuesday. The defense was only dressed in shells but was nevertheless physical, and fought hard during the two-minute situational drills that were the focus of the practice.

Jake Heaps took command of the first-team offense and faced the first-team defense for the first series of team period on Tuesday. After a tipped pass on the first throw, two consecutive dropped passes by receivers followed. Because the exercise was a two-minute drill, a fourth-down play was called, but receiver Cody Hoffman who was unable to come down with a sideline pass.

"The defense came out running hard and they played fast like BYU defenses play," said Cougar running back J.J. Di Luigi. "I think they're kind of coming into their own and getting their own identity now. It's really fun to watch."

"It was just sort of righting the ship, so to speak," Vic So'oto said. "Yesterday I think we got away from what we do best, and as a defense we feel we didn't do what we normally do. Afterwards we saw on film a lot of individual mistakes and guys not doing what they were supposed to. We came out today – and it's not so much just coming out to beat the offense – and wanted to play to our potential."

Riley Nelson fared a little better in his first series with the second-team offense versus the second-team defense. He connected twice with tight end Marcus Mathews, who was able to stretch the field. However, the success was short-lived after strong safety Jray Galea'i intercepted a pass.

"I felt like our defense did a heck of a job today," said Galea'i. "The offense came out and whooped our tail and worked us really hard yesterday. Today was the day of redemption. Coach mentioned to us that in order for our team to be really good, both sides need to be competing really hard, and today in the two-minute drill the defense busted their butts and the outcome was a lot different."

Nelson stayed out on the field for the third series and, despite a slow start and inconsistent series, was able to get the ball into the end zone. Nelson was sacked by freshman defensive lineman Travis Tuiloma, which was followed by two incomplete passes. Nelson then hooked up with Hoffman, who ran the ball in the open field down into the blue zone for a substantial gain. After three more incomplete passes, Nelson hooked up again with Hoffman for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal.

"Yeah, it was a little inconsistent and I think we need to refocus our assignments and do the little things right," Di Luigi said. "I think … at times the offense played a little better and then the defense played a little better. What it shows is we're both battling hard. It shows that our team is growing and the defense is a part of this team, so it's good to see them grown as a team as well."

Heaps took the field for the fourth and final series of the team's first period, and after completing two consecutive passes for a first down, the defense again stepped up. Defenders Kyle Van Noy, Eathyn Manumaleuna and Vic So'oto combined to record three consecutive sacks, and that was followed by an incomplete pass to O'Neill Chambers.

"Well, we've got a really good defense," said offensive tackle Matt Reynolds. "We've got some guys over there that seem to be running on a few more cylinders than we were. We were just a little off, but that's something to be expected with new guys in new positions filling holes that are usually solid and consistent. That's kind of the balance that we are trying to find: players that are going to be consistent day-in and day-out. I think we're getting there and I think our players are really trying and hopefully it's something we'll be able to find by the end of camp."

However, Heaps' teammates didn't do him any favors by dropping many passes that should have been caught.

"Yeah that's part of it," Coach Mendenhall said. "In the evaluation that doesn't affect us. I mean, if the ball is on the money and they drop that, then it's not his fault."

Like the during the first team period, Jake Heaps took the field first to begin the second team period. After a dropped pass by Devin Mahina, linebacker Aveni Leung-Wai had the physical play of the day when he hit Di Luigi.

"We came off a bad practice yesterday and came out with a chip on our shoulders and with more intensity today, and I think that helped us progress against them," said Leung-Wai. "It's always a competition out here and we were kind of getting fed up with our performance in playing physical and being mentally tough. Today we just concentrated on our keys and everybody played assignment-sound football, and I think that helped us today."

"I would much rather have them play hard, try hard, hit them, and to me I would much rather have that," said Coach Mendenhall regarding the very physical play.

Nelson took to the field with the second-team offense versus the second-team defense, and after two incompletions was able to complete a pass to wide receiver Spencer Hafoka for the first down. In this series Nelson was able to sustain an eight-play drive both on the ground and through the air, until the series ended when Algernon Brown was tackled for a loss.

During the final series in team period two, Nelson was able to sustain a 10-play drive to score his second touchdown on the day. The longest play of the series was a pass to Hoffman, who was able to turn the corner and sprint past cornerback Brian Logan. Hoffman received a great block from receiver Luke Ashworth, who laid out two defenders in Logan and Steven Thomas. A penalty moved during the play moved the offense back, but six plays later Nelson hit Di Luigi in the end zone for the score as the buzzer sounded.

Coach Mendenhall said that Nelson played "pretty well. And it's just a lot of different things. He throws the ball well and he's just so mobile, and if you see a coverage that's sound and there's a rushing lane that's open at all, he's out there running and he's tough."

Mendenhall feels that regardless of the final evaluation, there is a place in the offense for Nelson's abilities.

"Riley is a competitor and he's a great leader. I love the guy and I think he's an exceptional player."

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