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BYU football: Cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford will focus on keeping his ‘deep and experienced’ group healthy in 2021

Sixth-year coach, a former standout cornerback himself at BYU, says this group could be the best since he arrived at the school in 2016

BYU cornerback D’Angelo Mandell is expected to contend for a starting position in the 2021 season.
FILE - BYU defensive back D’Angelo Mandell in action during Cougars’ game against Hawaii on Oct. 13, 2018. Mandell is expected to contend for a starting cornerback position for the Cougars this fall.
Aislynn Edwards/BYU

BYU cornerbacks coach Jernaro Gilford attaches a caveat to his sentences every time he discusses the Cougars’ cornerbacks for the 2021 season.

“It will be most experienced group, and the most depth we have had in my six years coaching here,” Gilford says.

And then it comes: “If we can stay healthy.”

The former BYU standout (1999-2003) cornerback has been here before, only to see a key player go down in fall camp, or even sooner, with a season-ending injury. Last August, for instance, junior college transfer Jacques Wilson was pushing to be in the two-deep, but sustained a season-ending knee injury early in camp and was lost for the season.

And this year, it may be happening again. Micah Harper, the standout freshman from Chandler, Arizona, who played in 11 of 12 games last season and made 25 tackles, suffered a knee injury during spring camp in March.

Harper, son of former Hawaii star defensive back Kenny Harper — who terrorized the Cougars during Ty Detmer’s days — is most likely out for the season.

“I am not exactly sure if he will be back,” Gilford said. “If he is, that will be a blessing. If not, I want him to take his time and get healthy, especially with him being so young.”

Wilson probably has a better chance to play this year than Harper, but his status is still uncertain.

“If he can get healthy, he’s another guy that can bring something to the team,” Gilford said.

As of the start of June, four guys appear to be in the running for the two starting spots when the Cougars face Arizona in their opener in Las Vegas on Sept. 4: D’Angelo Mandell, Keenan Ellis, Isaiah Herron and Shamon Willis.

“Just those guys being in the program with me for two and three years now is a great thing,” Gilford said. “A guy like Shamon Willis, a guy like that who is experienced, you know what you are getting from him. There is no high and low. He is always even, you know? That’s a good thing.”

Willis is the son of former BYU running back Jamal Willis.

The football is just out of reach of Hawaii wide receiver Jared Smart (23) as BYU defensive back Shamon Willis (29) and linebacker Kavika Fonua (34) defend during the first half of the Hawaii Bowl NCAA college football game Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019, in Honolulu. Willis is expected to contend for a starting cornerback role with BYU this season.
Eugene Tanner, Associated Press

Gilford is also excited about Utah State transfer Jakob Robinson, an Orem High product the Cougars wanted a few years ago but couldn’t land because they were out of scholarships. Robinson made eight tackles and a sack in four games for the Aggies last fall.

Because last year doesn’t count due to COVID-19, Robinson has five years to play four, if he wants them.

“He’s a kid who can really, really play,” Gilford said. “He is going to surprise people because he’s a really tough kid. He’s a natural corner that understands football, a guy that can make plays on the ball. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there and hit people.”

Gilford said there could also be a “late addition” to the cornerbacks group from the transfer portal, “so if we are able to get all those guys in, we will have one of the deeper groups on the team.”

Per NCAA rules, Gilford could not name the possible transfer, but did say the recruit posted on Twitter a while back that he had committed to BYU.

There are other guys who shuttle between safety and cornerback, or play one of the hybrid positions such as nickel or cinco. Jaylon Vickers, Caleb Christensen and George Udo and perhaps even probable starting safety Chaz Ah You fit that description.

“We have guys that go back and forth,” Gilford said. “We feel like we are a very deep team. We have guys that can play multiple positions, guys that can help us out in different aspects of the team. So for us, man, we just try to get all those guys on the field in different ways and just try to create havoc for the offense.”

Last week, one of the top high school cornerbacks in the country participated in BYU’s camp. Cormani McClain, a five-star corner from Lake Gibson High in Lakeland, Florida, is a member of the class of 2023 and already has offers from Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida, Miami, Ohio State and others.

It is highly unlikely that BYU lands McClain, but Gilford — without naming names — said any time big-time recruits visit Provo, it is a win for the program.

“It absolutely helps,” he said. “Getting more guys to see the school, see the kind of guys we have, the great community we have and just the great environment we have is big for us. That is just special to have big-time recruits like that come and see it, come and experience it, so they can go back and tell other guys it is not what you think it is, and you need to go see it.”

Gilford said it is difficult to recruit highly rated cornerbacks to BYU, so to combat that the school looks for guys who have all the needed athleticism and measurables and can be developed in a couple of years.

“If and when they do pan out, the sky is the limit,” he said, referencing recent Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft pick Chris Wilcox and another former Cougar corner in the NFL, Michael Davis of the Los Angeles Chargers.

“Some times we have to take our bumps and bruises with them, because they don’t know the position for the first few years. And that’s the hard part, you know,” Gilford said. “We do recruit natural corners now just to help those guys. When you have a pure corner, a guy like Micah Harper, those guys can come in and teach the (less experienced) guys so much, because they already know the right way to do it.”