PROVO — BYU got in six spring football practices before the coronavirus pandemic forced the end of all activities and events on campus, probably more than almost every other program in the country.
Still, the Cougars needed far more than six to sort out their situation at the safety positions, safeties coach Preston Hadley said last week in an exclusive interview with the Deseret News. BYU is trying to replace two of the better safeties it has had the past decade or so, free safety Austin Lee and Dayan Ghanwoloku, who played both safety and cornerback during his outstanding career.
“A lot is really up in the air, to be honest with you,” Hadley said.
Ghanwoloku, who signed a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Rams after not getting selected in the NFL draft, was the team’s second-leading tackler in 2019 with 62 takedowns, 48 of them solo. Lee, who was still waiting for a mini-camp invite as of Wednesday evening, had 55 tackles and four pass breakups.
Of course, Lee didn’t play in the Hawaii Bowl, due to lingering hamstring issues, and Ghanwoloku started at corner. That left junior Troy Warner, still recovering from two foot surgeries, and sophomore Malik Moore to start at the safety spots, and the results weren’t pretty.
Hawaii quarterback Cole McDonald, who was taken in the seventh round of the draft by the Tennessee Titans, threw for 493 yards and four touchdowns — many times to wide-open receivers.
“Man, it was tough. But things happen. We didn’t play our best, obviously,” Ghanwoloku said. “We went into Hawaii thinking, ‘oh man, we beat these guys before (in 2018).’ I don’t think everybody’s head was there. It was like a vacation time, I felt like.”
Warner made six tackles, while Moore had two. Neither safety had a pass breakup.
In some limited viewing time during the six spring practices, it appears that Warner and former linebacker Zayne Anderson are the odds-on favorites to start the season, if there is one, as BYU’s starting safeties.
Moore and sophomore Hayden Livingston, a walk-on from Rigby, Idaho, are also in the mix, having gotten starts there during various stretches of the 2019 season.
Hadley said Anderson, who is back after a medical redshirt, isn’t the only linebacker making the move to safety. Sophomore Max Tooley, who has to sit out the first half of the opener at Utah on Sept. 3 (again, if the season starts on time) has been moved to safety as well.
“He has the frame to support that,” Hadley said of the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Bountiful High product. “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 was a safety in high school, and that was evident his freshman season at BYU as he had an interception and did well in pass coverage.
Hadley said sophomore George Udo is moving from cornerback to safety; He weighs in at 201 pounds and also has the frame to handle more pounds.
Hadley said that Warner, brother of San Francisco 49ers standout Fred Warner, was having an outstanding spring camp before everything got shut down.
“It was really fun to watch him during practice,” Hadley said. “He was playing at a high level and he was getting better each day, which you should expect from fifth-year seniors.”
“He has had a lot of ups and downs, made a lot of sacrifices to get to this point,” Hadley said. “Now he’s got to go out and deliver and put it on the field when the lights are on. Yeah, I have been super encouraged by him and what he’s been doing, and really proud of him and what he has done to get to this point.”
Head coach Kalani Sitake said in March that Troy Warner will anchor an improved defense, along with linebacker Isaiah Kaufusi, cornerback Chris Wilcox and defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga,
“If you look at the history of teams that return a lot of seniors and a lot of players with experience and playing time, that should do well for you,” Sitake said. “So I think we have a really good chance to have a good defense.”