PROVO — First-year BYU safeties coach Preston Hadley isn't far removed from his playing days.

So it makes sense that he relies on his experiences as a player in his coaching and recruiting efforts.

Hadley started all 26 games as a cornerback for BYU in 2011 and 2012 and was part of one of the program’s all-time best defenses in 2012.

But for Hadley, the road wasn’t always smooth. He persevered after not seeing much playing time until his senior year at Pleasant Grove High and then walked on at Snow College. Hadley initially was cut from the team but eventually made the squad after a second attempt.

He then served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the New York South mission and when he returned, Hadley became a star for the Badgers.

Eventually, he became a fixture on BYU’s defense for two seasons.

After Hadley’s playing career ended, he spent two years at BYU as a graduate assistant, then landed at Santa Ana College as cornerbacks, kick/punt return teams and recruiting coordinator in 2015. In 2016, he was hired as the secondary coach and recruiting coordinator at Weber State before returning to BYU this year on coach Kalani Sitake’s staff.

Hadley’s journey helps him relate to his players.

“The greatest lesson I learned through my own experience as a player was handling adversity. That’s the great thing about college football. It forces you to deal with adversity,” Hadley said last week, before the Cougars snapped a two-game losing streak by pounding Hawaii 49-23. “That’s Kalani’s message. There’s two choices — you can choose to do things the easy way and complain and point fingers. Or you can do it the hard way. For us, it’s man up, make plays and compete.

"As a player, I felt like I learned valuable lessons in that. I draw from those experiences and I challenge the players I have an opportunity to coach, whether it’s challenging them in practice or putting them in adverse situations," he continued. "As a coach, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be a player. People need to be challenged. There’s no growth without struggle. I felt like I experienced that firsthand as a player and I think that helped me to have the success I did as a player.”

I look for kids who compete — kids who invite challenges, kids who have done hard things. – Preston Hadley

Playing for a program that is independent has its share of adversity as well.

“Through the first four or five games, we have one of the toughest schedules in the country. We invite the challenge to go and play on the road in adverse situations against teams that, on paper, should be better than us,” Hadley said. “I love the underdog mindset we have here. That’s why we’ve managed to play well on the road this season. We go in with a chip on our shoulder and something to prove. We’ve got to take that same mindset and do it at home. The road less traveled is the road we like. We’re jungle tigers here. You’re either alley cats or house cats. Alley cats fight for their food.”

During the bye week this week, Hadley and other coaches have been on the recruiting trail. What does he look for in potential prospects?

“I look for kids who compete — kids who invite challenges, kids who have done hard things,” Hadley said. “For me, it’s always impressive to talk to a recruit and he has a job. He’s working, getting good grades and being a good football player, those are good cues to look at. The biggest thing is competing. BYU’s had some great DBs. To be honest, it’s not like most of them wowed you with their athleticism. But they knew how to compete and they were smart and they were tough. That’s what we are here at BYU.

Safeties coach Preston Hadley throws to his players while warming up before the Blue-White Game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, April 7, 2018.
BYU safeties coach Preston Hadley throws to his players while warming up before the Blue-White Game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, April 7, 2018. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

"I look for that. I’ve seen it firsthand. As a player, I wasn’t naturally jumping off the charts athletically. Those things are what BYU is made of. That’s what we have in our current players," he continued. "It’s guys that know how to persevere, guys that know how to compete and go through hard things. Those are things you look for in a kid. Is this someone who can hang in our program? I think we are one of the toughest programs in the nation for what BYU requires academically and socially and the amount of discipline that’s required. I look for tough guys who know how to compete. Obviously, we want guys who can run, jump and tackle. As far as the non-measurables, those are some of the things we look for.

“I tell kids, ‘BYU is a place I believe in.’ I played here. I can look them in the eyes and say, ‘I accepted the BYU challenge,'” Hadley continued. “I became more than I was when I got here. To be able to speak from the heart and look a kid in the eye and tell him that and speak it with conviction, I really believe in what we’re selling here and what we’re doing. It’s a matter of telling your story to the kids.”

Hadley is grateful for mentors he’s had in the coaching business, starting with former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall, who is now the head coach at Virginia.

“He gave me an opportunity as a graduate assistant to really learn and do things the way he did,” he said. “As of late someone who’s had a really big influence on me is Jay Hill up at Weber. In my opinion, he’s one of the best DB coaches in the country. For two years, I had the opportunity to learn from him and pick his brain and see how he did things. He had seven guys in a row drafted in the NFL. That’s a great indicator. He’s been a big mentor. Then the coach I played for, coach (former BYU defensive coordinator Nick) Howell, he was a positive influence on me as well.”

In a short period of time, Hadley has gone from BYU player to BYU coach.

Now, he's sharing the lessons he's learned with a new generation of Cougars.