PROVO — BYU's secondary backpedaled into a perfect storm of disaster last season.
A lack of experience and a surfeit of superlative wide receivers on the schedule resulted in the Cougars ranking No. 104 in the nation in pass defense — and plenty of embarrassing moments.
While the Cougars were breaking in new safeties and cornerbacks a year ago, they had to face, almost on a weekly basis, big-time receivers (TCU's Cory Rodgers, San Diego State's Jeff Webb, New Mexico's Hank Baskett, Colorado State's David Anderson, Wyoming's Jovon Bouknight and Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall, to name a few).
Are there calmer seas and sunnier skies on the horizon for the cornerbacks and safeties?
The good news for BYU is, at least it won't have to face any of those aforementioned wideouts (many of whom moved on to the NFL) this season.
That aside, coach Bronco Mendenhall is optimistic. He has switched from a 3-3-5 defense to a 3-4 alignment, which will take pressure off the cornerbacks to cover opposing wide receivers one-on-one as much as they were asked to last season.
What's more, Mendenhall hired a new cornerbacks coach, Jaime Hill. And returning starters Kayle Buchanan and Justin Robinson (cornerbacks) and Dustin Gabriel and Quinn Gooch (safeties) have gained invaluable on-the-job experience.
"It's an amazing thing when you watch Kayle Buchanan, Justin Robinson, Quinn Gooch and Dustin Gabriel after a full year of being in the fire and dodging the bullets and getting hit by bullets," Mendenhall said. "Their state of readiness is completely different. They're able to set a higher standard for the new players coming in. Coach Hill is doing a fantastic job with the technical part of their game. They meet longer than any group on our team, but I think they're anxious to do that knowing that the improvement they make can help our team win."
Despite the loss of Louisville transfer Brandon Bradley, who suffered a season-ending knee injury just days before fall camp began, there are several newcomers vying for playing time.
Injuries to Buchanan (shoulder) and Robinson (groin) have allowed coaches to get an even closer look at other cornerback candidates: Ben Criddle, a Glendale (Ariz.) Community College transfer; Andre Saulsberry, a Riverside (Calif.) Community College transfer; redshirt freshmen Brandon Howard and Nate Hutchinson; Tico Pringle, a Snow JC transfer; and freshman Robbie Buckner.
BYU coaches say it's too early to single out the performance of any of the cornerbacks, but they are willing to talk about the players as a group.
"They're getting better every day," Hill said. "They're working really hard, they understand what we're trying to convey to them. They understand the system and what I expect of them. They're doing well."
Hill brings high intensity, and high expectations, to the cornerback position.
"You can see me out there. Every play is important to me," Hill said. "I don't expect the offense to catch a ball. That's how I feel about it. They should be able to catch a ball for five yards and under. Anything more than five yards, we messed up somewhere. I'm very competitive. They'll be very competitive. They'll play like I coach. What we're looking for in our system are guys who are smart, who are able to adapt, who understand concepts and give great effort."
As of now, both cornerback spots are up for grabs. "Everything's open to me because I don't know what they did last year," Hill said. "It's irrelevant to me."
Overall, Mendenhall likes what he sees from the secondary.
"They're improving through their execution and the way they're being coached," he said. "Technically, each one is getting better. Within the scheme, they have a better grasp of that now. You can see them developing more confidence. As we continue to work in camp, I've seen a difference each day so far. They're certainly not ready yet, but I'm pleased with their progress."