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BYU boasts solid LB corps

Jensen will be asked to provide leadership for Cougar defense

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Cameron Jensen is filing the void at linebacker left by Brady Poppinga.

Cameron Jensen is filing the void at linebacker left by Brady Poppinga.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — The past three seasons, outside linebacker Brady Poppinga served as the heart and soul of BYU's 3-3-5 defense. His departure to the NFL created a void.

However, Cameron Jensen is filling that void. Players on both sides of the ball are looking to the 6-foot-2, 235-pound junior middle linebacker for leadership.

"Cameron's completely invested," coach Bronco Mendenhall said. "He is self-made in a lot of regards. His work ethic and daily example regarding that is the most important value any member of this team can have."

The Cougar 'D' revolves around Jensen, according to linebacker Justin Luettgerodt.

"The defense goes out from there on all angles. He's a stud," he said. "You use him as a role model, on and off the field. The one thing we got this year, and this is no knock on the coaches by any means, but we really feel more accountable to each other for messing up or doing something wrong than we do the coaches. That started with him last year, setting the tone, being as solid as a rock."

Jensen started all 11 games at middle linebacker a year ago, leading the team in tackles (103) and recording two interceptions, including one that went for a touchdown against UNLV. Against Boise State, he registered a team-high 12 tackles for a combined loss of 30 yards, including a sack.

Before arriving at BYU, the Bountiful native led Ricks College in tackles and earned all-conference honors as a true freshman. He went on to serve an LDS mission to Russia and upon returning, was recruited by Oklahoma, UCLA, Arizona and Utah.

Jensen headlines a linebacking corps that boasts depth and experience. Like many other positions, there's a serious battle going on during fall camp for playing time. On Monday, Jensen, Luettgerodt and Gary Lovely were playing with the first-team defense, but there are plenty of others competing for starting jobs.

"It's a good group," Jensen said.

It features Lovely, a junior, whose big highlight came last season when he returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in a victory at Air Force. "Gary's just trying hard. He's outworking his competition," Mendenhall said of Lovely's performance this fall. "Whether he's more productive, that remains to be seen."

Luettgerodt has been impressive thus far, according to Jensen.

"He has stepped up. I've been surprised this first week," Jensen said. "He's making the right decisions and playing like a seasoned veteran. He's physical, fast and quick."

Then there's senior Paul Walkenhorst, who's back with the Cougars after missing the last two seasons due to injury. "Paul's been flying around out there," Jensen said. "He's big and strong."

Others in the mix include, in no particular order, Washington State transfer Aaron Wagner; junior Dan Bates; junior Matt Ah You; sophomore Bryan Kehl, who recently returned from a church mission; redshirt freshman Richard Nehring; and sophomore Markell Staffieri.

"We all really support each other. We've got a lot of depth," Luettgerodt said. "Every day's a battle for your job. It doesn't matter what spot. There's no spot that's secure out here. It brings a lot of competitive intensity during practice. But at the same time, we're really encouraging to each other because we want each other to do good."

Luettgerodt, who saw limited action in the spring due to a knee injury, showed up at fall camp lighter than he was last year and he worked hard rehabbing his knee. Still, he's not satisfied taking reps with the first team.

"I don't think about it like that," he said. "I know what I can do. I'm nowhere near where I want to be. I want to be where I was, plus some. I've just got to go bust my butt every single day, play for my teammates and have fun."

Crowded chart

BYU players competing for playing time at linebacker (in alphabetical order):

Matt Ah You 6-0 245 Jr.

Dan Bates 6-0 240 Jr.

Cameron Jensen 6-2 235 Jr.

Bryan Kehl 6-3 230 So.

Gary Lovely 6-3 210 Jr.

Justin Luettgerodt 6-4 240 Jr.

Richard Nehring 6-1 215 Fr.

Markell Staffieri 6-3 230 So.

Aaron Wagner 6-3 245 Jr.

Paul Walkenhorst 6-5 252 Sr.

Note: On Monday, Jensen, Luettgerodt and Lovely were playing with the first-team defense.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com