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Move from linebacker to safety pleases BYU’s Max Tooley, a big-hitting sophomore from Bountiful

Known for his speed and tackling ability, Tooley is happy because he doesn’t have to bulk up to play a position in which he was a bit undersized.

Boise State Broncos quarterback Chase Cord is tackled by Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Max Tooley during NCAA football in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Tooley played linebacker in 13 games last season, but is moving to safety in 2020.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU football player Max Tooley is the kind of guy who cares more about how far he drives a golf ball than how many swings it takes him to get it into the hole. You drive for show and putt … because you have to, he believes.

Away from the golf course — he plays a couple of times a week, when he can — Tooley says he would rather deliver a big hit, or make a big interception, than score touchdowns.

So when BYU coaches asked him to move from linebacker to safety before spring camp opened in March, he gladly accepted the suggestion.

“More opportunities to make big plays,” he said.

It is also the opportunity to eat less, which, believe it or not, makes Tooley happy. He weighed in at 215 pounds before spring practices started, after being listed at 225 pounds last season.

“Honestly, I don’t think my weight was a real big factor in moving to safety,” he said. “I feel like I have always played bigger than I am, but yeah, I was an undersized linebacker. It is easier to be a safety, eating-wise. You don’t have to worry about stuffing your mouth full of food all the time.”

Tooley, an all-state safety at Bountiful High in 2015 before he served in the London South (England) mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says ever since he redshirted in 2018 (he played in only four games, so he could redshirt) coaches have asked him to “bulk up” and gain weight so he could look the part of the prototypical BYU middle linebacker.

“It has been easier this way, definitely,” he said. “I will be a bigger safety than normal, I guess. But I feel like I am fast enough to hold my own back there.”

He showed he has the ball skills while appearing in all 13 games in 2019 as an inside linebacker and making an interception against Washington quarterback Jacob Eason that he returned 33 yards. Memorably, Tooley appeared to have mistaken the 5-yard-line for the goal line on that return. He stretched the ball over the 5 before losing it, but officials ruled his knee was down after a replay review, and BYU kept possession.

“I had some good laughs with my friends and teammates over that, but it was all good (because BYU eventually scored),” he said last September. “It was a big relief.”

BYU linebacker Max Tooley (31) runs back an interception as Washington tight end Cade Otton (87) looks on during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Provo, Utah.
AP

Tooley also made 48 tackles, but one in particular will cost him some playing time in 2020, if the season is played amid safety concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. He was called for targeting and ejected in the final minutes of the Hawaii Bowl, meaning he will have to sit out the first half of the first game of the season.

That could be against rival Utah on Sept. 3 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“Nobody has specifically told me I have to sit out, but that’s what I’ve heard, yeah,” he said. “That won’t be fun.”

For now, Tooley is just focused on earning playing time at a position where BYU suddenly looks stout, with fifth-year seniors Troy Warner and Zayne Anderson the expected starters. Sophomore Hayden Livingston and junior Malik Moore will also be in the mix.

Safeties coach Preston Hadley said last month that sophomore George Udo is also moving to safety, having played cornerback last year.

“Max has the frame to support (the move),” Hadley said. “He has the right skill set — he has a long body, can run really fast, and he’s a good tackler. He just adds depth and makes the group more competitive.”

Tooley said the group of linebackers he was competing against for playing time was loaded with talent as well, so he’s used to having to scrap and claw to get on the field.

“That is what makes football so fun, is the competition aspect, competing against your teammates and pushing yourself to get on the field,” he said.

When the pandemic hit and BYU canceled its remaining spring practices, Tooley returned home to Bountiful for awhile, but is now living in Provo because it is easier to find open gyms and workout facilities.

Brigham Young linebacker Max Tooley (31) in action against the Toledo during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 in Toledo, Ohio.
Rick Osentoski, AP

His dad played rugby for and graduated from the University of Utah, while his mother attended BYU. He was a fan of both football programs growing up, and received scholarship offers from both.

“When it came down to it, BYU was just a better fit,” he said. “I had to go with my heart. I have dreamed of playing for BYU since I started playing football.”

He says his freshman season surpassed his expectations, but also made him hungry for more.

“I was mostly satisfied with how it went,” he said. “I never would have dreamed I would play as much as I did. I feel like I performed well and earned more opportunities for myself.”

Even at a new position.

More on BYU safety Max Tooley

• Earned Deseret News All-State First Team honors at Bountiful High

• Served a mission to London, England, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

• Redshirted in 2018 after appearing in only four games

• Played in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2019 and made 48 tackles as an inside linebacker