BYU has an overabundance of senior safeties in 2019 — and that’s a good thing

BYU defensive back Austin Lee (11) tries to get past Western Michigan linebacker Najee Clayton (7) during an interception return in the second half of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl NCAA college football game, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018, in Boise, Idaho. (AP Photo/Steve Conner)

Provo • Remember how BYU had an overabundance of senior linebackers last year?

Dynamic playmaker Sione Takitaki moved on to the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, while Butch Pau’u, Riggs Powell, Adam Pulsipher, Nate Sampson and Rhett Sandlin also exhausted their college football eligibility.

This season, four of BYU’s top six safeties are seniors: Austin Lee, Sawyer Powell, Austin Kafentzis and Beau Tanner. So naturally, expectations are high along the final wall of defense.

“It’s a group that has a good amount of experience and maturity,” said safeties coach Preston Hadley. “But mostly it is a group of winners. We’ve got three or four winning players back there at safety who can go out and compete with anybody.”

Other possible contributors in the safeties room include sophomore Malik Moore, freshman Hayden Livingston, junior Jared Kapisi and freshman Will Watanabe.

Another senior who played safety last year, Dayan Ghanwoloku, has been moved to cornerback, which is either an indication that the Cougars are deep at safety, or in trouble at corner with standout CB Chris Wilcox not having practiced yet due to an ACL injury he sustained last season.

Another senior safety, Troy Warner, has not practiced yet as he recovers from an injury sustained last spring.

“For us, guys are playing at safety for a specific reason, and guys are at corner for a specific reason,” defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said. “We kinda like our depth at safety right now.”

Lee, a former Alta High star who began his college career at Utah, is the likely starter at strong safety, with former quarterback Kafentzis and promising redshirt freshman Hayden Livingston battling to be Lee’s backup.

“I am confident about what I have seen in camp so far,” Lee said last week. “The speed in the room is better than it has been. We have guys who bring a physical presence and are excited to be there. We have talented, smart guys in that room.”

Hadley, a former BYU defensive back who joined the staff from Weber State before last season, said Powell and Moore are in the running to be the starter at free safety. Powell successfully petitioned the NCAA to get a season back that he missed due to injury and is one of the oldest players on the team, having been on a church mission to Uruguay.

Moore, meanwhile, is listed at just 186 pounds but insists he is physical enough to play safety.

“Of course I want to get my weight up, but this is fall camp and you can’t really do anything about it now,” said the San Diego native. “But it really doesn’t matter because I can do all the things they are asking me to do.”

Hadley said that Tanner, who has quit the team several times, only to return, “is really emerging” at camp and showing off the speed that first brought him to BYU as a receiver.

“Beau has already made a lot of plays so far in camp,” Hadley said. “Honestly, he could work his way into the mix.”

Kafentzis, the former record-setting quarterback at Sandy’s Jordan High, enters his second season as a safety and special teams ace.

“He’s really assignment-sound,” Hadley said of Kafentzis. “He’s a great communicator out there. He really understands how all the pieces come together to form a good defense. A lot of that probably comes from his time playing quarterback, receiver and running back. His football IQ is off the charts.”

BYU’s Top Six Safeties

• Austin Lee, Sr., 6-0, 200

• Sawyer Powell, Sr., 6-1, 200

• Austin Kafentzis, Sr., 6-1, 200

• Beau Tanner, Sr. 6-0, 189

• Malik Moore, So., 6-1, 186

• Hayden Livingston, Fr., 6-1, 200