Successful play in the secondary is vital to the success of any defense. If you can't cover deep sideline to sideline, you can't commit players to stopping the run, and if you can't stop the run, the other team is going to make sure that your defense has a very long day.
Thankfully, the BYU Cougars are very good at stopping the run; unfortunately, the Cougars do not look to have improved upon last year's team in pass defense, and that's a big concern. Last year's defensive backfield gave up the most passing yards per game of the Bronco Mendenhall era with 270. Not coincidentally, the defense also ranked last in the Bronco era with 27.5 points per game surrendered as well as giving up the greatest number of combined yards per game with 392.
The Cougars have traditionally been very stout against the run, but that means nothing if the opponent can just go over the top. The Cougars have not shown a willingness to drop more than seven men into coverage, so that means that often times their secondary falls under quite a bit of stress. BYU's secondary has to have some of their untested players step up, because right now, they only have five of last year's defensive starters returning, and of those, only Michael Davis plays in the defensive backfield. The Cougars' current unit has 21 career starts combined.
The good news is that the secondary has great depth, so while none of the players are projected to be stars, hopefully they can exceed our expectations. With that said, let's get to know our projected starters at the four key defensive back positions.
Michael Davis, 6'2", 182 lbs. Junior, Glendale, CA.
Davis is the elder statesman of the Cougar secondary, he earned his letter by appearing in all thirteen games, starting eight, and recorded 43 tackles and six passes defensed. He has the most experience out of any of the DBs, and will look to thrive this year in pass coverage. With Jordan Johnson and Robertson Daniel gone, it falls to Davis to show his shutdown skills and protect the outside. He should have a good solid year, and Phil Steele has him at second team on his preseason All-Independent team. He also has good length at 6'2", and you know I like my corners big, a la Richard Sherman.
Jordan Preator, 6'0, 183 lbs. Sophomore, Plain City, UT.
Preator is tabbed as the starter at the other corner. The sophomore played in twelve games in the 2014 season, notching his only career interception against Middle Tennessee during the Cougars' 27-7 win. He also defended nine passes and recorded 22 total tackles, including two tackles for loss. He also has great size and will combine with Davis to form one of the lengthier Cougar cornerback combos in recent memory. Preator should be tested often this season and should rise to the challenge.
Eric Takenaka, 5'10" 205 lbs. Junior, Salt Lake City, UT.
Takenaka is a junior college transfer from Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. He was part of an 8-2 squad that ended up ranked 8th nationally and was a first team safety on the All-Western States Football League defense. He also finished second nationally with eight interceptions and can play on special teams, where he led the NJCAA in kickoff return average at 44.1 yards per return. Takenaka is a mystery as a JC transfer, since it's not always a sure thing that great success at the JC level will translate to D1. However, he does represent exciting possibilities for explosiveness in the secondary and BYU has a good track record with JC players at safety.
Kai Nacua, 6'1" 207 lbs. Junior, Las Vegas, NV.
Nacua is the most experienced of BYU's returning safeties, having appeared in all thirteen games of the previous season, starting six. He is also the Cougars' returning leader in interceptions, notching two in his sophomore season, including one that he returned 32 yards during BYU's 42-23 win over UNLV in November. Nacua is a player to watch, as he has good talent and instincts, recording 10 tackles as a sophomore including two for loss, but he may be on a short leash after participating in the ugly brawl to end the Miami Beach Bowl.
Chris Badger, 6'1" 197 lbs. Junior, Provo, UT.
Badger, who transferred to BYU from Notre Dame his freshman year, looks to improve upon his sophomore campaign, in which he saw action in twelve games, picking up a fumble recovery in the Miami Beach Bowl to go along with six tackles. Badger will be the deep man, and he'll face a steep learning curve against BYU's brutal early schedule. He is the least experienced member of the secondary and will rely on the others to bring him along.
Other players to watch for this season include redshirt freshman Michael Shelton of Raleigh, NC; Micah Hannemann of Alpine, UT; Washington State transfer Kamel Greene of Mountain View, CA; Grant Jones of Concord, CA; and Garrett Juergens of Houston, TX. Incoming freshmen defensive backs include the talented Dayan Lake of Layton, UT, and possibly Riley Burt, of Brigham City, UT.
The defensive backs this year have a serious task ahead of them with a brutal September, but the schedule lightens out a bit before Cincinnati and Utah State arrive as two of the more notable matchups down the stretch. The unit should see some serious growing pains early, but hopefully they gel quickly enough to stifle Jim Harbaugh and Michigan in in week four. Let's hope that last year's season was rock bottom for the Cougars' pass defense and they can spring back this year behind their untested secondary, or this could be a long season indeed.