BYU's Kalani Sitake has brought a fresh new look to the defense. Defensive Backs will be a brash, aggressive unit that will live and die on big plays. Sitake likes to utilize his front seven to disrupt the offense and force the quarterback to make panicked throws without going through his proper progressions. This approach has led to great turnover margins for some most of the teams that he has coached in the past.
One of the keys for this kind of play is a deep defensive line rotation that continually pressures the quarterback and disrupts running lanes. The other key is an aggressive secondary with a ball hawking free safety and long cornerbacks that can disrupt timing routes in press coverage and make plays on the football in the air. The Cougars have the right combination of veteran leadership and young talent to make this type of defense work.
While the Cougars might have a tough test with some of the quarterbacks on their schedule, the secondary has the length and size to effectively play a three deep zone in a base 4-3. Ultimately, they should be able to break up passes and disrupt the opponent's rhythm. This is something that hasn't been able to be said about a BYU secondary in a long time.
The cornerback spots are crucial for the type of three deep, press bail coverage that the defensive backs will be asked to run in Sitake's base 4-3 scheme. If you don't get good cornerback play, then your safety will end up having to cover more than he should be asked to. Thankfully, BYU has more than enough length at the cornerback position to execute this scheme:
Michael Davis, Senior, Right Corner, 6'2, 190 lbs.
Davis is the most experienced cornerback on BYU's roster. While he doesn't have a single interception to his credit, he has 17 passes deflections in his career, which is tied for 5th all time. He also tied for the single game BYU record for passes deflected with four against East Carolina.
Davis' length and experience will be essential for this defense, and with the more aggressive approach, he may notch his first career interception this season.
Troy Warner, Freshman, Left Corner, 6'2, 192 lbs.
Standout linebacker Fred Warner's younger brother is the projected starter at the all-important left cornerback position. Warner was a multi-sport standout in high school, and clearly possesses the drive and motor that Sitake likes to see. If he's anything like his brother, BYU fans will be in for a treat.
It is a bit interesting that Sitake will go with the least experienced of his starters at left corner as this is usually reserved for the team's most talented cornerback. The fact that Sitake and Gilford are willing to trust a freshman at this position speaks highly of their belief in Warner's potential.
Other players who should see significant playing time are sophomores Akile Davis, Isaiah Amstrong and freshman Chris Wilcox. Expect to see freshman Dayan Lake and sophomore Michael Shelton get some playing time as well.
Micah Hannemann, Junior, Strong Safety, 6', 200 lbs.
Hannemann fits better at safety than cornerback, where at times he was exposed on an island last year. Now, he has the benefit of Nacua playing behind him. Playing underneath, Hannemann's aggressiveness and ball skills will be a huge asset, and look for him to add to his two interceptions and seven pass breakups this season.
Kai Nacua, Senior, Free Safety, 6'2, 208 lbs.
Nacua is the quarterback of this unit. He has great range and seems to always be around the ball. Nacua led the team in interceptions last year with six, returning two for scores, and is currently tied with former cougar Daniel Sorenson for second in interceptions since 2000 with eight. He also is tied with current coach Jernaro Gilford for the single season record with six. Nacua will be the center fielder, responsible for covering the most ground, and flying around like a hawk.
Other safeties to watch include Senior Eric Takanaka and Junior Matt Hadley. The coaching staff has reportedly said they're comfortable with playing Takanaka at either of the safety spots at any point in time.
All in all, this looks to be a pretty competent group of defensive backs for the Cougars in 2016. They might have some growing pains early, but they should be a high risk, high reward squad that will help get the ball back for the offense and make plays to help the team succeed.
They will get beaten deep a few times, but should create plenty of turnovers and take advantage of the aggressiveness of the front seven to win their matchups.