I remember when I was a young kid in 1994 watching Deion Sanders play for the San Francisco 49ers, and he got burned by his future teammate Michael Irvin. Both are Hall of Fame players now, but it’s not like Irvin could run by Sanders. Sanders was faster, and in my opinion, better athlete. But the truth of the matter for that one particular play was Dallas’s dominant offensive line–led by the “Great Wall of Dallas” Nate Newton, Larry Allen, Mark Stepnoski–held off the pass rush for 5 or 6 seconds. The 49ers had Bryant Young, Stubblefield, Richard Dent and Rickey Jackson trying to get to Troy Aikman, but they were shut down. It wasn’t very often that those four players couldn’t get to the QB, but that time it happened. Although San Francisco went on to beat Dallas, the lasting image of Irvin getting the better of Sanders on one play has stuck out in my mind to this day.
That’s how it is in the defensive backfield: if a defensive back gets beat even once, it can be a turning point in the game and leave a lasting impression on coaches, fans, and media members.
That brings me to BYU and their much-maligned defensive backfield. From every media outlet that I’ve read or listened to, they’ve told me that this defensive backfield, especially corner backs, can’t get the job done. Going into fall camp, it was considered the weakest position group, but the Cougars have some weapons to get excited about on the defensive end. Michael Davis is going into his second year as a CB, and from all accounts is having a really nice fall camp. Jordan Preator, who I watched tear up Region 1 in 5A high school football, was a true freshman last year and did a solid job as a part-time starter. Cougar fans should expect speed, agility, and a ball hawking at the corner position. After a medical scare, Micah Hannemann is back and playing like his hair is on fire. He should be a fun athlete to watch. Hanneman and Preator are cross training at the safety spot as well. It shouldn’t be hard for Coach Mendenhall to find the four best players in the backfield at any time. These three should be able to be more than adequate to hold down the corners at BYU this upcoming season.
That is, if the front seven can muster any kind of pass rush.
Last year the defensive backs were beaten over the top too many times to count. But on how many of those plays was there a serious pass rush right in the QB’s face? Bronson Kaufusi led the team with 7.0 sacks on the season. I expect this number to rise now that he is going to have his hand in the dirt more as opposed to being a hybrid DE/OLB dropping into coverage. He needs to use his long reach and quick hands to separate from the blocker, and rip, swim, spin, or bull rush his way to a 10 sack year. If Kaufusi goes out and has himself a double digit sack year, that will put the rest of the defensive line in a good spot to eat up blocks and let other make plays.
Fred Warner seems to be the OLB that the coaches, media, and fans want to get behind. He’s shown flashes of absolute brilliance from his freshman campaign. He blew up a fly sweep in the Utah State game and where he diagnosed the play, read the line of scrimmage, stayed home, and wrapped up the Wide Receiver in the backfield. Another great moment was against UCF, when he gave a fake move to the inside, and swam the Left Tackle to the outside to deliver a punishing blow to the QB, who rushed his throw. The pass fell harmlessly to the ground. And of course there’s the Boise State pick six, where he got into the backfield and intercepted a swing pass to the running back.
When Harvey Langi goes on a blitz, he’s like a locomotive running down the tracks. He saw limited action last year, and was making the transition from Running Back to Inside Linebacker, so the results weren’t there. But this player is going to cause havoc in the back field this year–mark my words.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall singled out Sione Takitaki as one of the best pass rushers on BYU’s roster. Like Warner, he’s shown glimpses of becoming a really good outside rush man. He reminds me of the former New Orleans Saint great Pat Swilling. If an offense puts a RB or a TE on him, he’s going to bull rush them and get to the QB. If they go with a Tackle, he uses his speed to get around them. Unfortunately the fans won’t get the pleasure of witnessing the pure athleticism of Takitaki in Lincoln Nebraska. He’ll be serving a one game suspension.
I expect the defense, especially the pass rush and defensive backfield, to take a giant leap forward this season. They have the talent, they have the attitude, and they have the scheme, but will they have the motor to get to the QB? Getting to the QB is all about desire, and if the front seven doesn’t create any pressure again this year, then they will hang the defensive backfield out to dry.
And come on–even Deion Sanders can’t cover for six seconds.