Provo • Before linebacker Francis Bernard switched schools in the state of Utah’s fiercest college football rivalry, defensive back Austin Lee proved it could be done successfully.
With much less fanfare.
An Alta High product who signed with Utah way back in 2012 and played for the Utes in 2015 after a church mission to Tulsa, Okla., Lee will get his third-straight start at free safety for BYU on Saturday when the Cougars face No. 6 Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium.
“Austin has emerged as an important part of our defense,” Cougar safeties coach Preston Hadley said Tuesday. “Not just with what he does on the field, but off the field, too. He is a good leader and a good example to all the players, and he has worked hard to get to where he is. He has deserved it.”
Bernard left BYU prior to the 2017 season amid some disciplinary issues and is now a backup linebacker with the Utes. He has said Utah is where he always wanted to be growing up.
BYU AT NO. 6 WISCONSIN
When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT
TV • Ch. 4
Lee’s ties to the University of Utah run far deeper than Bernard’s to BYU; His grandfather, Gordon Lee, played football for the Utes from 1959-61 and was Utah’s running backs coach from 1964-65. His father, Doug Lee, played baseball for Utah and lettered in 1984.
When he committed to Utah after a brilliant three-year starting career at Alta, Lee told reporters that it was the only school for which he ever thought about playing. But after making four tackles and appearing in seven games in a limited role his freshman year, Lee decided to leave the program he grew up favoring during preseason camp in 2016.
He attended some classes at Salt Lake Community College — just as Bernard did this past year — and enrolled at BYU in January of 2017. He played in eight games last year, making 15 tackles, and got the start in the season finale at Hawaii because senior Micah Hannemann was suspended.
Although cornerbacks Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner were moved to safety last spring and safety Zayne Anderson was moved to linebacker, Lee has managed to keep his starting spot. Ghanwoloku, Warner and Lee have rotated through two games, each getting approximately two-thirds of the reps.
“I wanted to come in and compete right away and try to earn a spot,” Lee said of his plan back in 2017. “Whatever I was asked to do to help the team is what I would do. Being away from the game, it was a little harder to make that transition. But I was able to make an impact in other ways — special teams, things like that. So it is what I envisioned, obviously. I wanted to come in and be a competitor. It is fun to have a competitive environment, with our group, especially.”
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said rotating safeties has worked well because the three co-starters have different strengths and abilities. Ghanwoloku and Warner might be better athletes, but Lee is a real student of the game and is fundamentally sound.
“Austin is playing really well. I have loved the way he is playing this year,” Tuiaki said. “We are slowly getting Troy back in form [after a foot injury]. Austin has been great for us, and I think playing him with Dayan has been really good.”
Lee’s experience will be needed Saturday at Camp Randall against quarterback Alex Hornibrook, who carved up the Cougars last year in Provo by completing 18 of 19 passes for nearly 300 yards. The Badgers also feature the leading rusher in the country, sophomore Jonathan Taylor.
“We don’t back down from anybody. So, we are excited,” Lee said. “Wisconsin is the No. 6 team in the country, so it makes you happy, because you just get to compete against the best. We know we have a physical team. We are confident with the scheme and our coaches’ game plan and we are going to go out and execute.”
While his wife Kortnie’s family is from Utah County and were already big BYU fans, Lee said it didn’t take long for his own family to turn from red to blue.
“Yeah, my parents are very supportive,” he said. “So it has been fun. It has just been a blessing, coming here. Just because they played baseball at Utah or stuff like that doesn’t mean they can’t cheer for the Y. They’re still very supportive.”
BYU SAFETY AUSTIN LEE
• Alta High product started his career at Utah, then transferred to BYU in 2017
• Had a career-high four tackles in last year’s 40-6 loss to Wisconsin
• Played in eight games in 2017 and started the season finale against Hawaii
• Junior has started both games in 2018 and made seven total tackles