Max Tooley wasn’t going to let this one slip through his fingers, like a few did during BYU’s preseason training camp last month.

So as the screen pass thrown by South Florida quarterback Gerry Bohanon fluttered a bit en route to a running back, the safety-turned-linebacker from Bountiful High seized the moment, altered his original plan.

He ripped the ball away from the would-be pass-catcher, secured it with two hands, and then streaked to the end zone for the first pick-six of his five-year career in Provo.

“I saw a play yesterday on that same sort of play, (the defender) laid him out. I was like, ‘Dang, it would be cool to do that.’ So that was definitely in my head. But when I saw the ball was available, I was like, ‘I gotta capitalize on this.’” — BYU linebacker Max Tooley on his interception return for a touchdown

“I had an intuition that it was going to go to the field (side), and once I saw my guy, the back, go out into the backfield, on that little swing route, I just committed to it,” Tooley said, describing the play after the Cougars’ 50-21 win over the Bulls.

“I saw a play yesterday on that same sort of play, (the defender) laid him out. I was like, ‘Dang, it would be cool to do that.’ So that was definitely in my head. But when I saw the ball was available, I was like, ‘I gotta capitalize on this.’

Capitalize he did, which sums up Tooley’s time at BYU. Stars such as Keenan Pili and Payton Wilgar get more publicity, and the affable Ben Bywater gets more interview requests. But the unsung component to one of the better linebacker groups in head coach Kalani Sitake’s tenure at BYU is Tooley, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound playmaker recruited as a safety and moved back and forth from one spot to another several times.

“I haven’t had (an interception return for a touchdown) since high school,” Tooley said. “I have wanted one in college. There was just that opportunity, I guess.”

Tooley’s fourth career interception and first touchdown gave the Cougars a 21-0 lead. He finished the day with five tackles, second only to defensive back Jacob Boren’s six.

“That was an awesome play,” BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said on his “Coordinators’ Corner” program Monday. “The way that Max played it was just perfect. That’s his man in the coverage. He sheltered, which we like him to do if they are running slants or (the like). He just picked the right moment and brought it home for us.”

When BYU released its offseason depth chart last June, Tooley was listed as a co-starter at the flash linebacker spot with former four-star recruit Chaz Ah You. But Ah You is apparently going to redshirt, leaving Tooley as the clearcut starter moving forward.

Saturday, he solidified that promotion, and will be a huge part of the No. 21 Cougars’ game plan this week when they host No. 9 Baylor at LaVell Edwards Stadium (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN).

“I feel like I have (earned the spot),” Tooley said. “Flash is a good spot for me. I am a little undersized as a linebacker, so I have to use my speed to my advantage. I have played it before. … I feel comfortable there.”

After missing the opener last year against Arizona with an undisclosed injury, Tooley played in the next 12 games and finished with 68 tackles — second only to Bywater’s 102. Tooley and Bywater were pressed into more playing time than expected after Pili sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 against Arizona State.

Then Wilgar — who finished with 56 tackles — missed the last three games after having shoulder surgery.

Tooley said he entered the offseason thinking this season might be his last, so he wants to make it his best.

“This offseason I just wanted to eliminate all the distractions, the things that didn’t matter as much towards my performance in the game, and just trust that I know how to play football,” he said. “I think I was figuring it out at the end of last year. I just wanted to carry on to that and play a little more loose, ultimately.”

So far, so good. But not after couple of drops in August.

“You know, I feel like this (fall) camp I have missed a couple of picks that I shouldn’t have,” he said. “I have kinda been (fretting over) that. But I said to myself this whole week coming up to the game: “‘If it is in my hands, there is no way I am going to drop it.’”

He didn’t. 

Tooley said he mostly played on offense in high school, so he developed “decent” hands catching the ball out of the backfield for legendary Bountiful coach Larry Wall. 

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Not making plays “was in my head a lot, at the beginning of my career,” he said. “I think I have been able to just play relaxed and not be so stressed and tightened up. Having my coaches’ trust has helped a lot. They trust in me. I have been healthy so it has been nice to come in and be able to take that role.”

Tooley was a Deseret News Class 4A All-State first team selection in 2015 as a defensive player. But he was just as deserving on the offensive side of the ball, rushing for 1,550 yards and 16 touchdowns his final two seasons.

After a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to London (South), England, he played in four games in 2018 but was able to call it a redshirt year. In 2019, he played in all 13 games, and had 48 tackles. But it was an interception against Washington that BYU fans will remember the most.

Tooley picked off UW QB Jacob Eason and returned the ball 33 yards. However, he mistook the 5-yard line for the goal line and attempted to stretch the ball over the 5 before losing it. 

Fortunately for him, officials ruled his knee had hit the ground before the ball came out, but that didn’t save him from some relentless ribbing from his teammates.

“I had some good laughs with my friends and teammates over that, but it was all good because we scored,” he said the following summer. “It was a big relief.”

Nobody was laughing or teasing Saturday. 

“All the ’backers have good ball skills,” Tuiaki said. “At one point a couple years ago (2019) they were leading the team in interceptions. So I am glad (Tooley) didn’t stumble on that one.”

Defensive tackle Lorenzo Fauatea said if there is one guy who can laugh at his own mistakes on the team, it is Tooley.

“Max is a good guy. He’s one of my buddies. He is just one of those guys who is just quiet, but then he will say some random things and start chuckling for no reason,” Fauatea said. “Everybody was happy and excited for him. He’s worked hard this whole camp that we just had. His hard work paid off with the pick six that he just had.”


Cougars on the air

No. 9 Baylor (1-0) at No. 21 BYU (1-0).

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT.

LaVell Edwards Stadium.

Provo, Utah.

TV: ESPN.

Radio: KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM/1160 AM.