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Provo • Having grown up in Utah County before starting his college career down the road at Snow College, senior cornerback Preston Hadley knows all about BYU football, and what fans have always said is annually the program's biggest shortcoming.
"They say it is us, the secondary," Hadley said. "People think that the secondary at BYU is always the team's biggest weakness. Well, I think this year we definitely have the ability to change that mindset. … We have a lot of depth and talent, and we believe we can hold our own just like any other position group on the field, if not be the best group."
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has even joined in on the hype, saying a few weeks ago that this secondary might be the best BYU has had since he took over in 2005.
"Well, I think it is the best we've had athletically since I have been here," Mendenhall said. "Whether they play that way, we will see."'
Mendenhall's remarks got back to defensive backs coach Nick Howell, who cringed a little at the added expectation but didn't distance himself from the head guy's bold statement.
"Sure," Howell said. "But talent is overrated, though. I will say that. We have to go out and prove we are capable. The secondary is just one part of the whole defense. But if our secondary can be really good, that will help our entire defense be really good, which is what we obviously want."
Mendenhall said he won't release the depth chart until the end of the week, but it is fairly certain that Hadley will be the starting boundary corner for the second straight year. Sophomore Jordan Johnson will start at field corner, the position Corby Eason held most of last year.
Another returning starter, junior Daniel Sorensen, will again man the strong safety spot (BYU calls it the Kat safety), while junior college transfer Joe Sampson, a senior, will be the starting free safety.
Howell said the first safety off the bench will be senior Mike Hague, then sophomore Craig Bills. The first corner off the bench will be junior Skye PoVey, another Snow College transfer, then Micah Hannemann, a freshman who was going to greyshirt until a roster spot opened up late.
Also, cornerback Robbie Buckner joined the team Tuesday, a week earlier than planned after offseason surgery for a non-football ailment, and could be used once he gets acclimated.
"We are going to fly around, make plays. We won't back down to anyone, I can guarantee you that," Howell said. "The mentality on defense is to fly around and play as hard as we can. We feel like we are going to be in better shape. We feel like we are going to be more physical. We feel like our kids are going to know the game plan better, and we are going to go out there and try to get their offense to break in the game."
If the Cougars employ their nickel package (five defensive backs), look for Sampson to slide into the nickel spot.
Mendenhall said, "yeah, I think so," when asked Tuesday whether the Cougars will play a lot of nickel to combat new coach Mike Leach's "Air Raid" offense at Washington State.
"They have a lot of good athletes, all playing at the same time. So, yeah, I think it will be good to match some speed and athleticism."
Hadley said this group has plenty of that, but knowledge of the system and playing with confidence are the elements that will take it past other BYU secondaries.
"We do pride ourselves on [athleticism], but we are not content with it. It doesn't matter what people say. We still have to go out and play," he said. "We want to be the best secondary that BYU has had since coach Mendenhall has been here.
"I think what he means is we have the potential to be the best, but I don't think we are quite there yet."
The most inexperienced of the starting defensive backs is Johnson, although he probably has the biggest upside.
"Jordan has [earned our trust]," Mendenhall said. "We are really confident. That doesn't mean I don't expect some mistakes, but the way he has worked, he is trustworthy, and we will build through the mistakes he makes."
BYU's projected starting secondary
Position Player Year
Field corner Jordan Johnson Sophomore
• Could be a rare three-year starter in secondary
Boundary corner Preston Hadley Senior
• Snow College transfer is solid in all areas
Kat safety Daniel Sorensen Junior
• Returning starter needs to give up fewer big plays
Free safety Joe Sampson Senior
• Could play nickel back against spread offenses