When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, three BYU defensive backs from the San Diego area had a big decision to make.

Stay in Provo and work out together with fellow defensive back and roommate Chaz Ah You to get better and build chemistry and unity, or return to Southern California?

Malik Moore, D’Angelo Mandell and Keenan Ellis ultimately decided to stick around, and on Monday that decision paid off as all three, and Ah You, were named starters for the Cougars’ season opener on Saturday against Arizona (8:30 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

“For us, being able to stay with each other through all of COVID, we got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We all became good friends, and that communication and that trust we have for each other is going to help us do our own jobs and back each other up.” — BYU safety Malik Moore

“For us, being able to stay with each other through all of COVID, we got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Moore said Tuesday. “We all became good friends, and that communication and that trust we have for each other is going to help us do our own jobs and back each other up.”

Because they all lived together in a house off campus and now form BYU’s entire starting defensive backfield, perhaps this group needs a nickname. The Roomies? Chaz and the San Diegans? Something like that.

Whatever the case, BYU’s fortunes in the defensive backfield this season will rise or fall on the shoulders of the four former housemates and some up-and-coming backups such as safeties Mitchell Price, Hayden Livingston, Jared Kapisi and Ammon Hannemann and cornerbacks Kaleb Hayes, Isaiah Herron, Jakob Robinson and Shamon Willis.

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“They have great instincts, they practice really well and they make a lot of plays,” said head coach Kalani Sitake, who signed a two-year contract extension Tuesday. “We feel really good about those guys leading the way in the secondary. We feel good about the depth in the corner and safety spots.”

In mid-August, Ah You said the safeties were a “tight-knit group” who were making each other better.

“As far as the competition goes, we all know that it is cutthroat,” Ah You said. “Coach (Ed) Lamb is going to have to make hard decisions, and some guys are going to be happy, and some guys are not.

“But that doesn’t change the atmosphere in our film room. We are all coaching each other. Guys will coach me up. I am coaching guys up, and so as far as that aspect goes, it is really fun to see.”

During the “Coordinators’ Corner” show Monday, Lamb said that Moore and Ah You emerged from spring camp as the leaders of the safeties group and “held onto the job” throughout the summer and fall camp.

“So definitely they will be out there on the first play and have every opportunity to play as much as possible,” Lamb said. “I am really excited about what they will bring, and I like our depth, too.”

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Lamb said Hannemann, the 6-foot-1 redshirt junior from Lone Peak High who has endured several injuries throughout his career, “was one of the most improved” players in preseason training camp.

Most observers believed Ah You, even though he was coming off a season-ending injury in 2020, was a shoo-in for the starting strong safety spot, and that came to fruition.

As for Moore ascending to starting free safety, that battle went down to the wire.

“I am definitely excited,” Moore said. “I worked really hard this offseason. I was training with people in Cali, doing everything I could out here, getting my body better. My hard work paid off.”

Moore is listed as a junior although this is his fourth year in the program; he has started in four games, but none since 2019 when he also played a little bit of cornerback. Last year, he was battling a shoulder injury and playing behind Zayne Anderson and Troy Warner, who are both trying to make it in the NFL this fall.

Moore said he worked with sports performance coach Dorian Crawford of D.C. Athletics in the offseason to improve things like his patience, footwork and offensive reads.

“I have the speed, so it is all about the little things,” he said.

A track star at Point Loma High, Moore also gained “about seven pounds” and got his body fat percentage below 10%. 

“I know the depth chart says I am 190 (pounds), but I am a little more than that,” he said.

Defensive coordinator Ilaiasa Tuiaki said Moore’s offseason work was noticeable in camp. The DC said Moore’s consistency earned him the starting nod.

“Malik has done a really good job in camp and has shown that athletically as well as mentally that he can do the job for us,” Tuiaki said. “We are excited to have him and Chaz there. We have a couple other guys there that are going to be great backups, but Malik certainly has shown that he has earned the job.”