After coach Bronco Mendenhall took over the defense for the last eight games of the 2010 season, the Cougars went 6-2. The defense only allowed 137 points to be scored during those eight games, compared to 144 in the first five games, which made them the No. 24 overall defense in the nation.
This year’s team hopes to continue progressing, but after losing five senior starters, who contributed a lot to last year’s team, this could prove to be a challenge for the Cougar defense.
The most notable position needing to be filled is strong safety, which was held by former all-conference player Andrew Rich. Rich led the team in solo tackles, assisted tackles, interceptions, pass breakups and forced fumbles. He was also a captain and earned the New Mexico Bowl Defensive MVP.
Those competing for strong safety are sophomores Daniel Sorensen and Jray Galea’i. Sorensen played linebacker in 2008 and then served a mission during 2009-10. Galea’i played in 12 games last season and earned four solo tackles and one fumble recovery.
The Cougar defense also lost two cornerbacks in Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley. Logan was the primary cover corner for the past two seasons, while Bradley handled the boundary corner spot. However, the Cougars have two players returning with starting experience in senior Corby Eason and junior Robbie Buckner. Eason played in all 13 games last season and recorded 22 total tackles and 3.5 sacks.
Eason underwent surgery and had to sit out during spring drills, which gave junior Snow College transfer Preston Hadley a chance to show he’s capable of playing well for BYU. Even though he sat out, Eason said he’s not worried about whether or not he’ll start.
“I have a great chance to play at any spot in the secondary because I know the defense that well,” he said. “I could start anywhere. I’m just going to continue doing what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here, working hard and proving myself to everyone.”
Buckner is also competing with redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson for Logan’s spot.
Senior Travis Uale is the only returning secondary starter at the free safety position. Although Mendenhall is confident in his team, he said the biggest questions lie within the secondary positions.
“We need to solidify our corners,” he said. “We have enough good players at safety, and I think we have enough good players at corner, but what the rotation is going to be and who’s going to play there and when, that still has to be decided. I’m optimistic because we don’t have many questions. We have good players.”
The Cougar defensive line lost Vic So’oto, who started all 13 games last season and recorded five sacks and 45 total tackles. He was also named to the All-MWC First Team. However, the line returns five players with starting experience. Perhaps the player most expected to have a great season is junior Romney Fuga. Fuga only played in the first four games last season due to a knee injury.
Fuga said a player never knows when his season could end, but it’s good to know even if that happens, BYU has plenty of good players to step up.
“All it takes is one play or one moment and you can be out for a game or a couple weeks,” Fuga said. “So it’s comforting to know we have all these players that have so much talent on the defensive side of the ball. I think it’s one of the deepest defenses we’ve had in a long, long time here at BYU.”
Also looking to contribute are junior Eathyn Manumaleuna, sophomore Graham Rowley and USC transfer Hebron Fangupo.
Adding to the strength of the defensive line are the Cougar linebackers. The team lost inside linebacker Shane Hunter, who had the second most tackles on the team last season with 85. But the Cougars remain tough and return four starters and three others with starting experience.
Players looking to have a standout season are seniors Jordan Pendleton and Jameson Frazier, sophomore Kyle Van Noy and USC transfer Uona Kaveinga. Pendleton has been mentioned as being an NFL-caliber player; however, he only played in six games last season after getting hurt, which gave Van Noy a chance to play 13 games as a true freshman, two of which he started.
Kaveinga sat out last season due to transfer rules, but Mendenhall said he’s confident in his ability to play and lead this team.
“Uona Kaveinga is a very, very good linebacker,” he said. “He’s expected to start at our mike linebacker spot, which is the leader of the front seven.”
Despite losing five starters, this year’s Cougar defense expects to be just as good, if not better, than previous seasons.
“This could be a special season this year,” Eason said. “Toward the end of [last] season, we picked it up on defense. We were one of the best teams [against] the run in the last seven games. We just want to build off that momentum and continue this season to get better and better. Our goal is to be the best defense to ever walk through BYU.”