A lot of BYU fans, players and coaches were surprised to see that walk-on defensive back Jacob Boren led the Cougars in tackles in their 50-21 win over South Florida two weeks ago.

But BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki wasn’t. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound speedster from Salt Lake City’s Highland High School has been impressing Tuiaki and other coaches since he successfully tried out for the team back in 2019.

“Jacob Boren is pound for pound probably the strongest guy in the weight room,” Tuiaki said. “He’s probably the fastest guy on the team, or closest to the fastest. And he has got the heart of a lion.”

“Jacob Boren is pound for pound probably the strongest guy in the weight room. He’s probably the fastest guy on the team, or closest to the fastest. And he has got the heart of a lion.” — BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki

After posting six tackles against the Bulls, Boren added two more in last Saturday’s 26-20 win over No. 9 Baylor and is currently seventh on the team in takedowns, despite not having started a game yet.

Boren and the No. 12 Cougars, who have allowed only 309 passing yards in two games, will be tested against this weekend as they take on No. 25 Oregon and Auburn transfer Bo Nix on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (1:30 p.m. MDT, Fox) in Eugene, Oregon.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that (Boren) is on the field doing good things for us,” Tuiaki said. “Because he’s been doing that for a couple of years.”

Boren, a junior, is listed as a backup nickel back — to sophomore Jakob Robinson — on BYU’s depth chart, but he simply refers to himself as a defensive back “because it is kind of all-encompassing, and because I play a little bit of corner, and a little bit of strong safety” as well.

“I will move around wherever they need me,” he said.

Making the team — twice

What makes Boren’s story even more amazing is that he wasn’t even a preferred walk-on; he had to try out for the team after serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“Out of high school, I didn’t have a lot of offers to play football in college, so after my mission I just enrolled at BYU because I wanted to live away from home, and I thought I was just going to be a student,” he said. “But I got down here to Provo and saw a sign for the BYU walk-on tryouts, and kinda thought it would be fun to try out.”

BYU defensive back Jacob Boren (20) watches the action from the sideline as BYU and Baylor play at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Boren didn’t know any of the coaches, but he was familiar with Cougars starting Will linebacker Ben Bywater because he competed against the Olympus High product in high school. Bywater urged him to give it a shot, and he quickly impressed coaches with his speed. Boren ran the 100 and 200 for Highland, in addition to playing cornerback and running back for the Rams.

“Yeah, Jake Boren is one of those dudes who inspires me and a lot of the team as well,” Bywater said Monday. “… He is such a good athlete. He is so fast, strong and physical. He’s got that dog in him. So when I heard he was thinking about it, I was excited. I don’t know if I told him to walk on, but when he had the opportunity to do it, I was all on board.”

Boren was clocked running a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the tryout by a member of the BYU strength and conditioning staff. He made the team as a receiver and played in one game in 2019. Then COVID hit midway through spring camp in 2020, and Boren wasn’t initially asked to rejoin the team prior to 2020 fall camp.

Welcome back, again

So Boren was a student again in September 2020, working toward his degree in construction management and figuring his playing days were over. Then receivers coach Fesi Sitake called and asked him to come join the scout team because injuries had thinned the receiver corps.

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“Then I stayed with the team that winter, and then in spring ball 2021 there were some injuries, some opportunities, and they asked if I wanted to try defense,” Boren said. “So I started playing a little bit of nickel, and did pretty well, stayed with the team through that year.”

That’s being humble, actually.

Boren made his first college start, at nickel, against Washington State last year and helped BYU hold WSU to 19 points in a 21-19 victory in Pullman. Boren was one of 26 players who appeared in all 13 games last season, and finished with 20 tackles, a forced fumble and two pass breakups.

BYU defensive back Jacob Boren breaks up a pass during Cougars’ win over Washington State on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Pullman, Wash. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

“I earned a little bit of a spot, got a little bit of time last season — a lot on special teams, and then contributed a little bit on defense,” he said. “And then fast forward to this year — I am still working hard on special teams and trying to contribute where I can on defense.”

Contributing in 2022

Monday, BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Boren is a great example of the Cougars’ attempts to incorporate developmental players with transfer portal guys and high school recruits who are ready to play almost immediately.

“Well, Jacob is a great player, first of all. Just tons of speed. He is just tough. He is a resilient young man, and to come up the way he did, and not just make an impact, but get on the field and play significant reps for us, it is hard to do in any program,” Sitake said.

“We believe in putting time and energy into these young men and have them develop into something.

“Jacob Boren is a great example of that,” Sitake continued. “There are a lot of guys — I could go down the line. There are people that just develop. We are a developmental program where we want to buy into developmental players.”

Bywater said Boren deserves every opportunity he gets.

“I am so proud of him for everything he’s done. He works so hard,” Bywater said. “I am a big Jake Boren fan. I am in his corner. I am excited to see what he does this year.”

How it all started

Boren’s father, Jason, an attorney in Salt Lake City, said his son was always fast, and has loved to play football since he was 8 years old. Jacob’s grandfather, William “Bill” Boren, played football and baseball for the University of Utah in the 1950s and held the school record for longest kickoff return for many years before it was broken.

Jacob’s mother, Angie, was a Cougarette at BYU and also an accomplished marathon runner.

Although Jacob says most of his extended family members are Utah fans, he attended a lot of BYU summer sports camps growing up and would often get heckled for showing up in his SLC neighborhood wearing BYU gear.

“He would wear BYU clothes around here, and he would kinda get teased a little bit about it,” Jason Boren said. “And I think just with his personality, that kinda cemented that BYU was where he wanted to go, (after) the persecution from neighbors and friends, and other things, that’s what he wanted to do.”

But trying out for the team?

That was Jacob’s idea alone, his father said. But his parents had long since learned that when he put his heart and mind into something, he wasn’t going to let go.

“He’s very persistent,” Jason Boren said. “He didn’t even have a car his freshman year, and he was running around on his bicycle trying to get the required blood work done, and everything else. From his perspective, I think he would tell you that things kind of miraculously fell into place. He felt fortunate that it all worked out.”

And now BYU coaches are the lucky ones.

Cougars on the air

No. 12 BYU (2-0) at No. 25 Oregon (1-1)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

Autzen Stadium

Eugene, Oregon

TV: Fox

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM