New defensive coordinator Jay Hill’s rebuilt BYU defense faces a lot of questions in 2023 as the Cougars gear up to compete in the offense-minded Big 12.
Whether BYU will have capable safeties or not is not one of those questions.
“Man, I feel like our room has been fire the last two years. The same people have been in the room for a year or two now. I feel like the whole group has grown a lot.” — BYU safety Malik Moore
Sixth-year senior free safety Malik Moore and redshirt sophomore strong safety Micah Harper are the clearcut starters coming out of spring camp and should combine to form one of the better safety tandems in the Power Five league.
“Man, I feel like our room has been fire the last two years,” Moore said when camp concluded on April 14. “The same people have been in the room for a year or two now. I feel like the whole group has grown a lot.”
Sophomore Talan Alfrey, who moved into the starting lineup when Moore fractured his finger last season against Wyoming, also brings plenty of experience to the position.
Others in the mix to back up Harper include freshman returned missionary Raider Damuni, sophomore Utah State transfer Crew Wakley and sophomore Chika Ebunoha, who appeared in five games last year.
“Micah Harper stood out in a few practices doing great stuff (before he sat out the last week of camp),” Hill said. “There is still a lot of solidifying in that depth chart to do come fall camp.”
Harper’s right knee was protected by a sleeve-like brace the final few practices, but Hill said it is nothing serious despite the fact that Harper missed the entire 2021 season after suffering an ACL injury in 2021 spring camp.
“So he had an injection that is just going to help him. He had some tendinitis and stuff going in the knee,” Hill said. “He will be fine. He should be back and running here in the next week or so.”
Other safeties looking to break into the two-deep chart include freshman Ty Burke, redshirt freshmen Preston Rex and Petey Tuipulotu and redshirt sophomores Ethan Slade and Tanner Wall.
Sophomore Dean Jones entered the transfer portal midway through spring camp.
Hill said that oft-injured former four-star recruit Chaz Ah You, who has played some safety in the past, is going to stay at linebacker. Ah You did not participate in the contact portions of spring camp.
“Guys like that gotta prove they can stay healthy,” Hill said. “And guys like (Ah You) gotta prove they are ready to battle the other guys that are in the group that have gone through spring and done some other things.
“That’s a veteran guy’s job, to solidify who they are, and what they are, and the reality is this coaching staff has not seen some of those guys,” Hill continued. “So those guys still gotta win us over, in a way. And it is not just him. There are others.”
Hill coaches the safeties, while Jernaro Gilford has the cornerbacks and Justin Ena has the linebackers. Former Utah assistant Sione Po’uha coaches the defensive tackles and Kelly Poppinga oversees the edge rushers.
Hill said the process of getting acquainted with each other will continue into the fall, but he liked the progress made by everyone.
“I had to come in here and try to earn the players’ respect and confidence, and the same thing on the flip side of that. The players were trying to do the same — earn my respect and confidence,” Hill said. “I think that this spring was huge for that. I don’t think we are there yet, but I think our coaching staff has done a good job of trying to let the players know that we care about them and let the players know we have their best interest at mind, and prove to them that we are coaches that can get them to play at the highest level.”
Ena said he is happy to have Ah You in his group, but noted the “best players are going to play” and what players have done in the past will be considered, but won’t be the main reason they see the field in 2023.
“We got some good players. We have to win games, and I want to keep my job, so the best guys will be out there. The best three (linebackers) are going to be playing. I think there are some really good players out there and I would like to see a little bit more out of Chaz right now, but I know there are injuries that are restricting that.”
Assuming he returns to his pre-injury form, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Moore has a chance to leave as one of the better safeties in program history.
“I participated in quite a few practices,” Moore said when spring camp wrapped up. “When it came to scrimmaging and getting live reps, I didn’t do as much. But I did a lot.”
Moore said he could have returned to action the last month or so of the season, but he had to make the smartest decision for his future, and if that meant not being at 100% it probably wasn’t worth it.
“A better opportunity to play at 100% brought me back,” he said. “Also, I wanted to get into a master’s program and try to do something with that. I am not old. I am young. I graduated (high school) at age 17, so why not just stay for another year? I am only 22 now.”