Provo • BYU football coaches gave their young cornerbacks a huge vote of confidence last spring when they decided to move experienced corners Dayan Ghanwoloku and Troy Warner to safety.
“We saw that as a sign that they really believed in us,” junior Chris Wilcox said.
Wilcox, senior Michael Shelton and the four freshmen who were left at cornerback — Keenan Ellis, Malik Moore, D’Angelo Mandel and Isaiah Herron — have rewarded their coaches’ faith with solid play through the first four games of the season. Aside from some costly pass interference penalties in the first two games, the corners have been a big part of BYU’s 3-1 start.
But their biggest test to date comes Saturday when No. 20 BYU tangles with No. 11 Washington and its outstanding quarterback, Jake Browning. A four-year starter, Browning will be throwing to easily the best group of receivers the Cougars will go against this year — most notably juniors Aaron Fuller, Chico McClatcher, Quinten Pounds and Andrew Baccellia as well as the one who got away, sophomore Ty Jones, a Provo High product.
“It’s one of the best groups of receivers in the country, if not the best,” Wilcox said. “Our secondary is going to have to be ready, because they are definitely talented, and [UW] passes a lot.”
Fuller already has 22 catches for 367 yards and a touchdown, while Jones and Baccellia have 10 catches apiece and McClatcher has seven. Jones has caught four touchdown passes, the same number as BYU’s entire team.
“They have guys who can run. They have guys who have great ball skills. They have a great quarterback with tremendous skill around him,” said BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford. “It is definitely a huge test. But at the same time, we will be ready and prepared for the challenge.”
The Cougars will likely be without Herron, a backup who missed the McNeese game with an undisclosed injury. Also, senior Beau Tanner has left the team, Gilford acknowledged.
Gilford said BYU’s corners have been “average” this season, citing the early pass interference penalties and a few missed assignments.
“We are doing all right,” he said. “We can always do better. We have a high standard in our room and amongst each other. We are always trying to strive for greatness, so we are always down on ourselves a little bit.”
Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki was less harsh, saying the unit is “making progress” after some early struggles against Arizona in the opener.
“Obviously, there’s always room for growth,” Tuiaki said. “But they are on the right track as far as what we are looking for. They will have to keep it up because this quarterback, along with his receiver combination, is really, really good.”
Washington is 39th in the country in passing offense, averaging 272.5 yards per game. BYU is 38th in team passing efficiency defense and 42nd in passing yards allowed (185.0 ypg.).
Shelton, the only senior in the group now that Tanner has departed, said his crew is looking forward to the challenge.
“These are opportunities we look for in life and we ask for help to get through them,” Shelton said. “This is definitely an opportunity where proper preparation will help us get over the top. … Hopefully proper preparation will lead us to another win this week.”
Mandel, the redshirt freshman who was known as D’Angelo Gunter last year when he entered the program the first time, said competition remains fierce for playing time among all the cornerbacks, not just the backups to Shelton and Wilcox.
“Washington throws the ball a lot, so we will be put to the test,” he said. “We feel like we’re ready.”
As for matching up with the 6-foot-4 Jones — none of BYU’s corners are taller than 6-2 — Gilford said it will take a team effort.
BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Monday that BYU recruited the receiver who prepped across the street from BYU’s campus, but couldn’t get him away from the high-profile Pac-12 program.
“We had a great opportunity in recruiting him, and I thought we were close [to getting him],” Sitake said. “We wish him the best of luck in every game but the one this Saturday.”
BYU’s Two-Deep Chart at Cornerback
Starting Left Corner — Michael Shelton, 5-8, 175, redshirt senior
Starting Right Corner — Chris Wilcox, , 6-2, 195, junior
Backup Left Corner — Malik Moore, 6-1, 175, freshman
Backup Right Corner — Keenan Ellis, 6-0, 175, redshirt freshman or D’Angelo Mandel, 6-1, 175, redshirt freshman
Note: Freshman Isaiah Herron is out with an undisclosed injury; Senior Beau Tanner has left the program