Provo • Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: BYU’s defense looks awfully vulnerable at the cornerback position.
The caveat to that seemingly annual statement of preseason training camp is it didn’t have to be that way in 2018. And it still might not.
Cornerback was supposed to be a strength of the defense after the 2017 season, because Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner, despite a Lisfranc foot injury, were two-year starters at the spot and easily two of the finest athletes on the team last year.
But coaches made the decision in spring camp to move Ghanwoloku and Warner to safety, part of the effort to get their 11 best defensive players on the field.
That meant they had faith in the young corners who just entered the program or played behind the two stars last year, right?
“Absolutely,” said the man whose task is to basically start all over again, cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford.
It’s nothing new for the former BYU defensive back who faced a similar situation when he joined the staff in 2016.
“Everybody was worried my first year when Dayan and Troy and Chris Wilcox were all freshmen,” Gilford said. “Everybody wanted to know how it was going to work. We made it work. Those guys stepped up. These [new] guys have the potential to do that, too, and Wilcox and Michael Shelton have a lot of experience. They just have to go out there and prove to everybody that they can play.”
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said if they can’t play, coaches have a “contingency plan.”
Obviously, that would mean moving Warner, Ghanwoloku, or both, back to cornerback. The Cougars appear deep enough at safety for that to happen, with heady seniors Sawyer Powell and Gavin Fowler, former running back Austin Kafentzis and former cornerbacks Austin McChesney and Isaiah Armstrong backing up Warner, Ghanwoloku and Utah transfer Austin Lee, who is poised to start in the opener against Arizona on Sept. 1 if Warner’s health doesn’t allow it.
“In the long run moving those guys to safety is the best thing to do,” Tuiaki said. “Sometimes it is painful early, but in the long run it is the right thing to do.”
Warner and Ghanwoloku both acknowledged they have still seen some reps at cornerback in preseason camp.
“I did some corner just the other day, but right now I am still mainly a safety,” Ghanwoloku said. “It’s probably just a precaution. Those guys are going to be fine at corner.”
However, the position suffered a blow when junior college transfer Trevion Greene suffered a knee injury early in camp. His status for the season hasn’t been disclosed by the coaches, but Gilford said it “doesn’t look good.”
Gilford said Wilcox, Shelton, former receiver Beau Tanner and redshirt freshman Keenan Ellis are “battling for playing time right now” and “are probably my top four guys” in the rotation. After those four are four freshmen — Malik Moore, Brach Davis, Isaiah Herron and D’Angelo Mandel, who redshirted last year when he was known as D’Angelo Gunter. The other corners in camp are walk-ons Koy Harris, Jared Kapisi and Mitchell Price.
“We have a lot of young guys on defense that I’m really excited about,” head coach Kalani Sitake said. “I think they will come along. A lot depends on how our guys progress at cornerback. But we have guys we can move back if necessary.”
Shelton and Wilcox, who would likely be the starters if the season started today, said fears that BYU’s cornerbacks are in over their heads are unfounded.
“I’m ready to step up and be a leader, like [Shelton] is, and I feel like the younger guys have improved a lot,” Wilcox said. “Guys like Keenan Ellis and Malik Moore are stepping up big time. I am very confident in their abilities and what they are going to do in the games.”
BYU’S PROJECTED TWO-DEEP AT CORNERBACK
Left Corner • Redshirt freshman Keenan Ellis or senior Beau Tanner
Right Corner • Junior Chris Wilcox or senior Michael Shelton
Other cornerbacks • Junior Trevion Greene (injured), freshman Malik Moore, freshman D’Angelo Mandell, freshman Brach Davis, freshman Isaiah Herron, freshman Koy Harris, freshman Jared Kapisi, freshman Mitchell Price