Cougars Sporting an Underrated Defense
Those looking for reasons to expect a big year out of the BYU football team in 2012 need to look no further than the Cougar defense.
Last season Bronco Mendenhall’s squad quietly finished 13th in the country in total defense, giving up 312 yards per game.
Even those who follow college football closely might be surprised to learn that the Cougar defense finished ahead of programs like Wisconsin, Boise State, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Stanford.
In fact, many BYU fans may not realize that the Cougars finished 19 spots ahead of TCU and 25 places ahead of Utah in total defense last year.
Mendenhall’s team also finished 19th in the nation in rushing defense, 15th in pass efficiency defense and 11th in red zone defense.
Officially, seven starters come back from that 2011 group.
Eathyn Manumaleuna (6-2, 294 Sr.) and Romney Fuga (6-2, 321 Sr.) will return along the front line in BYU’s 3-4 alignment, while linebackers Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 235 Jr.), Uona Kaveinga (5-11, 236 Sr.) and Brandon Ogletree (5-11, 228 Sr.) return to help give the Cougars what should be one of their best front sevens ever.
In the secondary, boundary corner Preston Hadley (6-0, 200 Sr.) and katback Daniel Sorensen (6-2, 206 Jr.) are set to reprise their roles as starters as well. In all, five of the seven returning starters are seniors.
So are Ian Dulan (6-1, 270 Sr.) and Russell Tialavea (6-3, 275 Sr.), two former starters who are expected to return to the field of play after serving missions.
Dulan redshirted last season after returning home from Illinois, while Tialavea came back from Chile this past winter and underwent surgery to repair a fractured foot he suffered on his mission. Russell is expected to be healed and ready to go for fall camp. Between the two, they have a combined 43 starts on the BYU defensive line.
At linebacker, Spencer Hadley (6-1, 230 Jr.) is moving from the inside to the outside for 2012. Outside linebacker out in space is a more natural position for Hadley, who came to BYU as a safety and saw significant action on the field as a true freshman in 2008.
After returning home from a mission in California last season, Spencer again saw considerable playing time and started the Texas game at buck linebacker in place of an injured Ogletree. His transition this spring was about as seamless as it gets, and although he cannot be labeled as a returning starter, he has plenty of playing experience under his belt.
The biggest question mark for the BYU defense when it opens the season against pass happy Washington State on August 30th will be at the field corner position.
Jordan Johnson (5-10, 185 So.) has been the heir-apparent in that spot since he stepped on campus two years ago. The redshirt sophomore has all the talent in the world and appears to be a budding star. All he needs is a little seasoning. He did see action in all 13 games and recorded two interceptions and 16 tackles in 2011.
The only position that will really be up for grabs on the defense when fall camp kicks off in four weeks is at free safety where seniors Joe Sampson (5-10, 213 Sr.) and Mike Hague (5-10, 190 Sr.) are locked in a battle for the starting job.
Based on his outstanding performance after being moved from corner to safety last year, Sampson would seem to be the odds on favorite. He recorded 23 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, one fumble recovery, three pass breakups and two quarterback hurries — most of which came after he was tabbed as the nickle safety during the second half of the season.
It’s quite likely that Hague and Sampson will open the season as starters against WSU and Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense. The Cougars are likely to show a lot of nickle coverages to Wazzu in that first game.
The bottom line is that BYU will sport a talented, senior-laden defense in 2012 that already handled itself quite well in 2011. That level of leadership and ability out on the field could be the reason you may spot Bronco Mendenhall with a big smile on his face come this fall.