PROVO — Much was made of BYU's lack of defensive leaders this offseason and for good reason. Defensive players, many of whom took part in BYU's media day, listed lack of leadership prominently when discussing last season's uninspiring play.
While many look at upperclassmen to fill the leadership void, the Cougars still have relatively few seniors on the defensive side of the ball entering the 2015 season. Most of those seniors, perhaps most prominently defensive lineman Remington Peck, are ready to take on a leadership role and generally have the respect of their teammates.
But why rely on just seniors for leadership?
At least one underclassman feels primed to take on a leadership role and is doing everything possible to establish himself as such.
“I need to be a leader and a playmaker for this defense,” said BYU sophomore Fred Warner at BYU's media day. “I’ve always been that guy who tries to get guys to follow what I’m doing. It comes naturally to me."
Warner is entering just his second season at BYU after arriving as a highly recruited outside linebacker prospect who held offers from most Pac-12 programs, including USC, Arizona State and Washington. His freshman season was full of ups and downs, primarily due to injuries and subsequent inconsistent play, but it also provided a glimpse into why Warner was so heavily recruited.
Warner has also carried himself confidently off the field. During most interview sessions, the former 4-star prospect carried himself more like a fifth-year senior rather than a first-year player trying to find his place.
According to BYU outside linebacker coach Kelly Poppinga, Warner's upbringing contributed significantly to how he carries himself.
“He’s a naturally mature kid and I think a lot of it has to do with how he grew up,” Poppinga said. “He grew up in a single-parent home and I think he decided real early to take on that sort of father-figure role and help take care of his family in a way."
As mentioned, Warner took his lumps during his first season, leaving the 6-foot-3, 220-pound outside linebacker unsatisfied with his play, but excited to improve.
"The biggest thing I took away from last year is confidence,” Warner said. “I think last year I learned about everything it takes to be a starter and a true playmaker. It takes a lot more than just athletic ability and so I really feel I’m ready to take up my play to the next level this year. Now I need to put everything I learned into action.”
Poppinga has noted Warner's progress every step of the way and is optimistic about the strides he's seen made.
“He’s not afraid and he’s never been afraid from day one,” Poppinga said. “He’s vocal, he’s mature, on and off the field, and he just loves the game of football. So I think if he stays healthy, that he really has everything we’re looking for athletically and mental wise.”
Warner is just one example of defensive players ready to step up, improve their play, and then lead at the outside linebacker position, according to Poppinga. Other promising prospects at BYU's most celebrated defensive spot include sophomore Sione Takitaki, junior Sae Tautu, freshman Tyler Cook, sophomore Troy Hinds and senior Teu Kautai, among others.
“It’s going to be interesting to see who steps up and really takes on the role of being the guy,” Poppinga said. “Fred wants to be that guy real bad, but he’s not the only one and that’s a great thing to have. I’m excited about this group and the potential.”