Five years ago, Malik Moore joined the BYU football program as a shy, soft-spoken and somewhat skinny defensive back who was raised in Mississippi but prepped at Point Loma High in the San Diego area.

Now, he is not only the gregarious, lively leader of the Cougars’ 10 or so safeties, but also a big leader of the entire defense as a fifth-year senior not afraid to express his opinions and rally his teammates to work harder and play better.

However, there’s one choice that Moore prefers to leave up to the coaching staff. Who should join him, the unquestioned starting free safety, as the strong safety at the back line of the Cougars’ defense?

“We have so many guys it is going to be hard for people to choose who are the twos, who are the threes, and who are the ones.” — BYU safety Malik Moore

“I really don’t care who is in,” the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Moore told the Deseret News after Saturday’s second scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium. “I will let them make their decisions, and however they play I will just play off them and do what I do best.”

If statements made in the past week by safeties coach Ed Lamb and head coach Kalani Sitake are any indication, redshirt sophomore Ammon Hannemann appears to have the inside track on the starting strong safety position to be Moore’s running mate.

Hannemann appeared in 10 games last season, starting in four. He made 35 tackles, 24 solo.

“Ammon Hannemann has done a really nice job,” Lamb said last Thursday. “He played a lot last year, but he was like a first-year player. He had big ups and big downs. His consistency has been much better right now. I feel really good with where he is at.”

Asked after the second scrimmage which guys have emerged as the possible starting strong safety, Sitake mentioned Hannemann first, followed by converted cornerback Micah Harper, fifth-year senior Matt Criddle and freshman Talan Alfrey, a returned missionary who missed all of last season (except the bowl game) with an injury.

“There are a lot of bodies out there,” Sitake said. “We feel like we can utilize a bunch of different players there.”

Harper, from Chandler, Arizona, started in five games at cornerback in 2020, but sustained a major knee injury during spring camp in 2021 and missed all of last year. He was moved from cornerback to safety last March.

“He has been available the whole camp, just not full speed,” Lamb said. “But he will be fine for the game. He is getting back to full speed right now. So I am really anxious to see what he brings, coming from a different position.”

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Last year, Utah State transfer Jakob Robinson joined Moore along the defense’s back line and tied Moore for the team lead in interceptions, with three. Robinson also plays cornerback and nickel, and has spent most of fall camp working under cornerback coach Jernaro Gilford’s tutelage.

Lamb and Sitake also mentioned that walk-on redshirt freshman Ethan Slade has done some impressive things in camp.

“I would say (Slade) has been the surprise of camp, and then after that we have some young strong safeties, Talan Alfrey and Carter Krupp, who I think have a lot of potential but are still in a learning mode as far as the system goes,” Lamb said.

Said Sitake: “I think we have seven to eight guys that we feel good about at (the safety) positions.”

Moore’s primary backup could be redshirt junior Hayden Livingston, who has been in the program for five years and made some big plays, including a game-sealing interception in the end zone against Arizona last year.

“More than likely it will be guys battling for the second and third spots that are going to be in situational football for us where we can utilize them in the safety spots,” Sitake said, noting that nickels such as Jacob Boren, George Udo and Robinson could fill in at safety, too, if needed.

Sophomore Caleb Christensen had not joined the team as of the end of last week, but Lamb said the versatile DB and kick returner “is fine and will be with the team” at some point.

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As for Moore, who has five interceptions in his career, Lamb said the veteran can still improve.

“He felt like there were some reps last year where he needed to be a more sound tackler, a more consistent tackler,” Lamb said. “But I think he plays the ball as well as anybody that I have worked with when the ball is in the air.”

Other safeties in the room include redshirt freshman Dean Jones, former Bingham High star Isaiah Glasker and Chika Ebunoha, a true freshman from Tucson, Arizona.

“We have so many guys it is going to be hard for people to choose who are the twos, who are the threes, and who are the ones,” Moore said. “We have so many athletes on our team right now that anybody can really step in and play. So no matter if I get hurt, or if the twos get hurt, there are still threes that can come in and do the same amount of work as we did. We are looking really good, and deep.”

Utah running back Micah Bernard escapes the tackle of BYU defensive back Malik Moore during game at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Utah Utes running back Micah Bernard gets pressured by BYU safety Malik Moore during a game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News
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