BYU senior safety Austin Kafentzis never matched his prep QB feats, but he’s inspiring his teammates in other ways

BYU running back Austin Kafentzis (2) attempts to get by Hawaii defensive back Trayvon Henderson (39) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

Provo • It was one of those get-to-know-you team meetings early in preseason training camp that BYU safeties Austin Lee, Malik Moore and others will never forget.

A few days ago, fellow safety Austin Kafentzis — the former Jordan High quarterback who smashed every offensive prep record imaginable five years ago — stood in front of his teammates and related the story of how he ended up playing defense for the Cougars, after stops at Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona Western College.

Kafentzis told them how he and his father, Kyle, left Yuma, Ariz., after his last game with the Matadors in November of 2016, having barely played, and drove throughout the Western U.S. looking for a new place to call home.

After criss-crossing the West and visiting more than a dozen schools, Kafentzis found a home near his family’s home in Sandy, eventually accepting BYU coach Kalani Sitake’s offer to be a preferred walk-on and compete for the starting QB position.

“Man, you talk about a guy that’s gone through stuff,” Lee said. “Austin Kafentzis has gone through stuff. To see the struggles that he’s been through since high school, it was emotional for us. Things haven’t been easy for him, and he’s had to earn his way. It really hit hard.”

As he enters his final season of college eligibility, Kafentzis’ task now is to find playing time. He’s currently in the two-deep at safety, the fourth position he has played at BYU. He moved to defense in spring camp of 2018 and appeared in 12 games last fall, mostly on special teams.

With Dayan Ghanwoloku moving to cornerback and Troy Warner still recovering from a foot injury, Kafentzis’ chances of becoming an every down contributor are better than ever.

“In the spring, I was able to get a lot of reps out there,” Kafentzis said Monday. “I am feeling comfortable. I have been playing defense for more than a year now, and am working hard in practice honing my craft to get better each day.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jordan's Austin Kafentzis (2) looks to pass the ball during the game at Herriman High School Friday September 20, 2013.

When BYU hosts Utah and new Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig on Aug. 29, Kafentzis says he will “come full circle, in a way,” because Ludwig recruited him to Wisconsin back in 2014 when he was part of Gary Andersen’s staff in Madison. Now Kafentzis and his defensive teammates are studying the offense they expect Ludwig to run at the U.

“It has been quite a journey,” Kafentzis said.

A journey that has not included a lot of playing time, but one that Kafentzis says he doesn’t regret. When he graduated early from Jordan in January of 2015 and headed out to Madison as the most-decorated prep QB in state history, many believed he was destined to have a standout career in the Big Ten and perhaps move on to the NFL. It didn’t happen.

“I have learned a lot of life lessons, a lot of different things from each place I have been at,” he said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. There are a lot of things that have shaped me and put me in a position to improve. Ultimately, they were all my decisions. No one was forcing me to go anywhere. No one was forcing me to leave. It was all based on me.”

Moving to defense in the spring of 2018, after he rushed for 98 yards on 18 carries in the season-ending win at Hawaii in 2017, was also his decision, he says. There were times last year when the Cougars could have used an additional ball-carrier, but Kafentzis refuses to wonder what might have been.

“I felt like it was the best fit for me to go to defense,” he said. “I am a physical guy — I like hitting guys, and on offense you couldn’t really do that. Defense is nice — you can bring out your physical side. So yeah, I am ready to go in whenever they need me.”

Safeties coach Preston Hadley said Kafentzis is now on scholarship and as valuable to the team off the field as on it.

“Austin is the ultimate team guy,” Hadley said. “He is a great example of resiliency, and he is an asset to our group. Regardless of what his role is, he embraces it. He’s exactly the type of guy you want on your team.”

Lee, who prepped at Alta, recalls competing against Kafentzis in high school and thinking he was impossible to stop.

“Everything he has done has been for the team,” Lee said. “The dude is a real inspiration. I love having him in the safeties room and playing right next to him.”

Moore, a sophomore from San Diego, said Kafentzis’ speech was “an inspiration” and will stick with him for a long time.

“After hearing his story, I am motivated to be like him,” Moore said.

Sitake said Kafentzis has been “relentless in wanting to get on the field and have a role” with this year’s defense.

“I am just glad that we have him here, because he brings a lot to the table just being a local product that is not a member of the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] but has done a great job living the lifestyle here and adapting to the academics," Sitake said. "I am glad he was able to share his experiences. That’s important to our players and our team, knowing where he is coming from when he’s on the field and what he does.”


November, 2014 — Completes brilliant four-year starting career at Sandy’s Jordan High as the second-most prolific player in total offense (20,021 yards) in U.S. prep football history

January, 2015 — Graduates early from Jordan and enrolls at Wisconsin shortly after former USU coach Gary Andersen leaves Madison for Oregon State

May, 2015 — Is fifth on UW’s depth chart at QB, decides to transfer to Nevada

August, 2015 — Loses appeal for immediate eligibility at Nevada and redshirts in 2015

June, 2016 — Leaves Nevada after head coach Nick Rolovich moves on to Hawaii

Fall, 2016 — Plays sparingly at Arizona Western Junior College, throwing just 11 passes for 15 yards

May, 2017 — Enrolls at BYU and joins the derby to be Cougars’ starting quarterback

September, 2017 — Moves from QB to receiver and then to running back in Ty Detmer’s BYU offense

November, 2017 — Rushes for 98 yards on 18 carries in season finale at Hawaii and finishes season with third-most rushing yards (235) on the team

March, 2018 — Switches from running back to safety in spring camp after getting no reps at RB in first live scrimmage of spring camp

Fall, 2018 — Plays in 12 games, mostly on special teams, but records four tackles and is involved in some trick plays on offense against Utah and Western Michigan that result in touchdowns

August, 2019 — Enters preseason training camp in the two-deep at safety as a fifth-year senior